Thoughts on Jazz Film Classic: “Bird”

Thoughts on Jazz Film Classic: “Bird”

Recently I re-watched Clint Eastwood’s celluloid expression of the musical life of Charlie “Bird” Parker. It remains as hideous as I remember.  A man who was charming and full of life is presented as dull and hard to watch.

Forgive me, Forest Whittaker fans, but the lead role was horribly miscast. Whittaker was simply not able to capture the dynamism that IS Parker.

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Most of the blame must fall on the shoulders of the director for his story choices, exclusions and lighting. That’s right, lighting. The film is horribly illuminated. I imagine the intent was to create a somber mood to fit the music, yet it is as if the director didn’t know how to properly shoot dark-skinned actors.  There are several scenes where the characters are but indistinguishable blobs – a disgrace for a biographical portrait of Parker. One can argue that such darkly fused images reflect the chaotic nature of Parker's jazz. I don't buy that. If the effect interferes with the enjoyment of the film, it fails on execution.

Secondly, there’s little jazz music, giving viewers little chance to fall in love with the creativity and mind of Parker.

More than the lightning and the lack of signature tunes, however, I question the choice to isolate Parker in a white world, showing no relationship with his mother and not even a scant reference to his first two black wives. There are no scenes of Parker vibing with the other famed black musicians of his time. It’s as if Parker sprung fully-grown from the earth into the arms of white women and the life of his pal Chan Robinson, creating his music in a vacuum. 

Of course, I understand Eastwood’s desire to have the movie illuminate the bond between Robinson and Parker, which was essential to Parker’s career. However, the movie dismisses any integral role Parker’s cultural bonds and heritage had on his musical development.  That is a travesty.

Here’s hoping another director will take on the task of bringing the true and full Charlie Parker to film.