[box cover]


As John Lennon once said, "Genius is pain." But then again, what did he know? He was just some long-haired rock-n-roller. Now Charlie Parker — there's genius. And pain. And jazz. And when he wasn't fucked up, that man could blow an alto sax like nobody else alive. Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, born in Kansas City in 1920, started to make his mark on the American jazz scene in the 1940s, when it was at its absolute peak. The legends, such as Basie and Ellington, were going strong, joined by a new generation of musicians such as Thelonius Monk and Miles Davis, who were pushing the edges of the genre with increasingly complex compositions and unheard-of gifts for improvisation. After joining several bands in Kansas City and elsewhere, Parker eventually relocated to New York City, where he joined a small group led by pianist Jay McShann (with whom he first performed his legendary "Cherokee"), later hooking up with Dizzy Gillespie — their subsequent studio sessions with lead sax and trumpet formed the foundation of "bebop," catching the attention of the jazz world. However, Clint Eastwood's 1988 Bird — a pet-project Charlie Parker biopic on an epic scale, starring Forest Whitaker — does not exist merely to instruct the audience on Parker's contributions to 20th century music. Rather, it's a story about a gifted musician who, like so many artists, is burdened by addiction — in Parker's case, prescription drugs and heroin. Operating in several flashback sequences, and opening with a suicide attempt late in Parker's life, Bird chronicles the offstage struggles that made his personal life a mess, and his professional work increasingly harder to maintain. Many flashbacks are introduced by Parker's wife Chan (Diane Venora), where we witness his mercurial live performances as he rises in the jazz world, but also the eventual breakdown of his marriage, the death of his young daughter, and the loss of his Cabaret Card in New York, which prevented him from getting gigs.

*          *          *

When it comes to epic biographies on film, the most important element will always be the leading actor, who has the unenviable task of re-creating a historical figure, and often one who isn't always sympathetic. In this regard, Whitaker's performance elevates Bird beyond its sometimes-despondent subject matter, primarily because his Parker is a wholly formed figure and not just a horn-blowing washout in a junkie melodrama. As conveyed in Bird, Parker had a great love for life, a man always ready for a laugh with friends, and with unbounded enthusiasm for his craft — so much so that he hates his addictions and always wants to get the better of them, getting clean for a while, but inevitably going back to the smack. A key scene late in the film between Parker and Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) sums up the difference between the two jazz icons: "How come when I'm supposed to hit at 9:30, I hit at 9:30?," Gillespie asks. "How come I can land on a cat I love and then fire his ass for showing up late or stoned? Because they don't expect me to. Because, deep down, they like it if the nigger turns out unreliable.... I won't give them the satisfaction of being right." It's the "answer" Parker has been looking for from his mentor, but the saxophonist can't be a reformer like Gillespie — not when the needle is a cheap, reliable way to treat his physical and mental agonies. Warner's DVD edition of Bird offers a strong anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with a newly remastered soundtrack in Dolby Digital 5.1, and the chief supplement is outstanding — an isolated score, which includes many original Parker solos, lifted from early recordings in 1988 and re-recorded for the film with new backing tracks. Bird is a movie that offers almost non-stop music, be it the performances or many subtle underlying tunes, which the isolated track (in Dolby 2.0) gives full clarity. After watching the film, running the disc again with just the isolated score is as entertaining — and edifying — as any commentary track out there. Trailer, cast notes. Snap-case.

Back to Quick Reviews Index: [A-F] [G-L] [M-R] [S-Z]

Back to Main Page