Clint Eastwood as the “master director” is sort of a new concept thanks, largely, to his recent box-office and award-circuit triumphs with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. While Eastwood’s first major critical success came with 1992’s unlikely Oscar winner Unforgiven, the veteran Hollywood star’s 1988 gem, Bird is the film in his canon that best represents the scope of his talents.
Charlie Parker was one of our greatest musicians. “Yardbird” was one of the true jazz pioneers, blending vision, skill and creativity perfectly. Unfortunately, he was plagued by a terrible drug habit, bad business decisions and bleeding ulcers. Eastwood explores the mind of a creator, which is fascinating considering the director’s own gifts and his love of jazz, and it is obvious he can relate to the struggle of having to be the best, even when you don’t feel like it. When the possibility of electric shock therapy is tossed around as a possibly cure for the musician’s ailments, it is just as quickly dismissed. No matter the demons involved, changing the mind and chemistry of a great artist is always detrimental.
What we then witness is a thrilling, career-best performance from Forest Whitaker, a turn which took the male acting prize at Cannes that year. He not only captures the grandeur of a music firebrand working with a heavy heart, he somehow also finds the kindness, the wit and the humanity inside the fast living man. The actor is fearless: he doesn’t go for cheap sentimentality and plays Parker as incredibly flawed, to the point of being incapacitated by his own bad behavior. He expects those that surround him to blindly tolerate his addictions without really thinking through the consequences. While Whitaker blazes through the narrative with an unlikable abandon, one of my favorite is also one of the most simple. After playing wherever he could, to little or no acclaim, Bird visits Paris and is welcomed with open, adoring arms. After a particularly intense performance he is rewarded with a hail of accolades and a storm of roses thrown at the stage. It is a glorious moment, especially when one views Whitaker’s reaction. His gratitude, his humbleness and his pure happiness at seeing his real love connect in the way he wants it to is startling.
Bird also intimately examines the performer’s partnership with dancer Chan Parker (played with vigor by Diane Venora). The scenes between the concerned common-law spouse and her disturbed, creative partner crackle with a rare energy and sharpness. Venora delivers an unexpected performance, in every sense. It may be “the thankless wife” role, but Venora elevates her character above the rut most women who play the quietly supportive type fall into. Chan is sublimely devoted to her husband, to his music and his creativity. She is tolerant of his habits, sometimes despite the welfare of their children. She sees his problems as being intertwined with his gifts and allows him to continue on his path with little interruption, even if it means she will eventually lose him to the grip of these vices. She deals with the tricky subject of being romantically affiliated with a black man and having his children - which in itself was a pioneering effort in those times - with a sense of pride and love that is a refreshing twist on the relatively stock role. The film is in fact based on the memoirs of Parker’s widow and Eastwood managed to not only gain her blessing on the venture, but also received access to a slew of unreleased recordings that were previously locked in a bank vault thanks to her involvement.
Eastwood manages to lift his tidy little story into another dimension by putting the music at the forefront, something that is clumsily absent from the slew of recent films with similar topics. While musician bios like Ray and Walk the Line seem like elaborate showcases for rising talent to posture about, imitating their subjects, Bird is a more artistic and more thoughtful effort. It lets its actors’ characterizations unfold at a sumptuous, un-rushed pace around the music. Though Bird’s physical struggles and his relationship with those closest to him are intrinsic plot elements, the vigorous musical sequences (where Whitaker avoids a stock imitation, meticulously re-creating not only the artist’s techniques, but also his inner fire) are the real draw, proving Eastwood can’t really be placed in a box when it comes to his directorial choices