Jazz Odyssey: Bird

This is a 1988 biopic of Charlie Parker (Forest Whitaker) directed by one-liner comedian and arch nemesis of Tim Westwood, Clint Eastwood.

Bird fits in the Elephant Man/Gandhi category of great ’80s biopics that would probably have been ruined had they been made today, avoiding a standardised treatment so tempting for a story soaked with booze, fame and addiction. There’s not even a scene where he gets his nickname, possibly because opinion is divided on its origin and possibly because it comes from his love of chicken, which would make for a terrible scene and one that a movie made now would include regardless.

Technically this film is flawless, particularly in terms of its Oscar-winning sound (beating Die Hard to the punch). Since Parker’s mono recordings were unusable, the sound engineers isolated his solos and assimilated them into new backing tracks played by living jazz greats like Ron Carter, Walter Davis Jr. and Red Rodney (played in the film by Michael Zelniker). Whitaker mimes the complex solos impeccably and delivers a deeply committed performance, although he looks more like another altoist, Cannonball Adderley.

Yet it’s Bird’s wife Chan (Diane Venora) for whom we feel most strongly, another element that feels more complete than the nagging wives we see in most biopics. Bird himself feels harder to uncover, though his tragic tale is told beautifully over 2.5 hours. Eastwood’s affection for his subject manifests through smoky romance and brooding sadness, colouring the film with long takes and real locations, including one shot that weaves through 52nd Street as though you’re right there outside the Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) gig.

The timeline jumps around like Bird’s fingers on his saxophone, inhabiting the tricky structure and “inside the melody” approach of bebop, sophisticated on the one hand and raw on the other. Bird is an expansive and textured portrait of one of the greatest innovators in jazz, and an Eastwood flight well worth catching.

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