Whenever a film director approaches a new project they will undoubtedly seek out subject matter which is close to their own heart. It is obvious throughout Bird that Clint Eastwood has a real passion for jazz music and the story of Charlie Parker is a story that he cared deeply about bringing to the screen.
It impressed critics and audiences alike and won the best actor award for Forrest Whitaker’s drug-addled performance of the saxophonist Charlie Parker, as well as a best supporting actor for the role of Chen Parker played with a fiery gusto by Diane Venora. Their chemistry was essential to make what is arguably the greatest jazz biopic of all time, with their relationship being key to the story.
Eastwood introduces us to these two characters when they have both been brought to breaking point by Charlie’s drug abuse and the death of their daughter. Whitaker excels at showing the jazz pioneer at his worst, revealing how years of heroin abuse have strained his relationship with Chan so severely that she will not let Charlie handle their remaining child. The scene ends with Charlie attempting suicide by trying to ingest iodine, something which he has apparently tried before, it would seem from his wife’s nonchalant tone as she says, “That was stupid. Now I have to call an ambulance.”
Charlie is brought to a hospital where to most of the doctors working there he is just another junky musician who has hit rock bottom. However, one doctor recognises his patient to be the legendary saxophonist, getting his record autographed by Parker, who has now mellowed significantly from the sweaty, dangerous and unpredictable character we were first introduced too. From here the film starts to delve back in time to show Charlie’s rise to fame and the beginning of his relationship with Chan. Eastwood did not want to tell a simple frame story of Charlie in chronological order, instead opting for a style which mirrors the free form and spontaneous feel of jazz music, going back and forth to show us Charlie’s rise to fame and the result of it.
Charlie is ‘haunted’ in early scenes of the film by the blurry image of a drum cymbal flying through the air. We learn that when Charlie was young he was invited on stage briefly in order to jam with Buster Franklin, however he became so lost and engrossed in his music that he was unable to play in the brief amount of time allotted to him. The drummer has to throw a cymbal onto the floor to jolt Parker out of his trance and usher him off the stage. This scene shows us that Charlie was a star from an early age, with such a unique talent that could not be fitted into a brief cameo appearance on stage, rather he had to show that he was the best musician in the room.
The drug abuse which proves to be his eventual downfall is never introduced in the film, rather they are ingrained as part of this character, Parker and the heroin are one and he is unable to play without it. Charlie never offers any illusions that he and his habit are ever going to part, even in his early days struggling to get a gig in jazz clubs and his early courtship of Chen. The ultimate tragedy of the film is that Charlie never feels that he can beat his addiction, never trying to detox once, and this leads to his early death at 34 years of age. Charlie is not under any illusions that his drug taking is what makes him play like he does, discouraging others from using it such as his close friend Red Rodney.
Charlie Parker and Red Rodney meet in California outside the back of a bar where Charlie has just shot up some heroin. Charlie threatens the young musician saying that he does not ever want to see him do the same thing otherwise he will follow and beat it out of him. He assumes that Rodney has come to see Dizzy Gillespie play as they are fellow trumpet players yet Rodney reveals that he heard the infamous Charlie Parker had travelled out to California playing his own style of jazz and sought him out.
The two characters quickly form a bond with Charlie becoming a mentor/father figure to Rodney. Charlie’s experiment with be-bop, then a pioneering style of jazz, does not pay off in California where parents and publicist’s alike say that the youths’ minds are being polluted by the raunchy free-form style of music. Charlie falls on hard times trying to get a gig when he runs into Rodney again in New York who tells him that “society gigs” are the best way to make money. He brings Charlie and his band to play at a Jewish wedding that afternoon, showing that jazz has the ability to cross across cultural and religious boundaries and is an art form that can be appreciated by all. Charlie eventually manages to book a tour across the Deep South where he has billed Rodney as a sensational Albino singer in order that they do not run into any trouble for having a mixed race band. These scenes are the lightest in the film and infused with a sense of mayhem and fun and they pass off Rodney as a singer with him surprising himself with his own bluesy drawl.
This tour however is the beginning of the end for Rodney as he manages to trick a doctor into giving him pain medication. Charlie is heartbroken to find Rodney using drugs in a devastating scene in which Charlie questions Rodney asking him whether he thinks that doing narcotics is the way to play like Charlie Parker. He can’t help but feel wholly responsible as Rodney sinks further into addiction which eventually lands him a jail sentence for picking a fight with a police officer.
The rock of the movie is undoubtedly the character Chan Parker who keeps her husband grounded and wanting to better himself. Chan is what gives Charlie a purpose in the film. She bestows him with a family and a reason to get off the road and to start and build a life. When the two first meet Charlie realises that Chan is not going to be just another conquest, with her saying to him that she heard that she’s the only girl in New York with whom he has not slept with yet. Even though his relationship with Chan does not stop Charlie from continually chasing girls on the road it remains obvious that Chan is the only woman that he has real affection for.
Bird managed to be the film that would launch Eastwood’s career as a world renowned director, fully stepping out from behind the screen of cop films and westerns, and showing that he could competently handle the complex story of Charlie “Yardbird” Parker. Eastwood wisely stays behind the camera to avoid taking any of the focus away from the searing performance given by Forest Whitaker.