BIRD. Charlie Parker, king of bebop, celebrated in film biography
New York — As its title proudly announces, ``Bird'' is steeped in the music of Charlie Parker - also known as Yardbird or just Bird, and surely the greatest alto-sax player who ever lived. The film is a biography of this spectacular musician. It's also a portrait of the time and place he lived in: the late '40s and early '50s, when 52nd Street in New York City was the capital of the jazz world, and people came in droves to hear a new kind of music called bebop. Parker was the king of bebop, but his musical fame didn't make for a smooth and easy life. He was tormented by insecurities, and he had serious problems with drugs and alcohol - which finally got the better of him, ending his life when he was still in his mid-30s.
``Bird'' shows the tragic parts of his life without either sanitizing or sensationalizing them; it's an antidrug movie that makes its point by example, not by preaching. Other aspects of the picture, meanwhile, are more upbeat. We see the loyalty of Parker's friends, such as trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, and we see the affection of his jazz-loving wife. We also see - and hear - the flowering of his musical skill, from his hesitant beginnings to his later stardom. Yet the tone of the movie remains mostly brooding and contemplative, always reminding us of the human problems at the heart of what could have been a simple success story.
The makers of ``Bird,'' director Clint Eastwood and writer Joel Olianski, have not looked for easy ways of telling Parker's story. The movie has a complicated structure, beginning in the very first scene - a dreamlike episode that uses a percussion instrument as a metaphor (a cymbal-symbol, you might say) for Parker's hard-hitting life.
``Bird'' is a movie that demands your full attention, refusing to yield all its meanings if you sit back and let it wash over you. But it rewards that attention with a rich and poignant study of a man who was never less than fascinating.
Mr. Eastwood has long been one of Hollywood's most inventive directors, in a dozen pictures as diverse as ``High Plains Drifter'' and ``Bronco Billy,'' and now he's turning into one of our most ambitious filmmakers, as well. ``Bird'' has flaws. It goes on a bit too long; its images are almost mercilessly dark; and it glosses over some difficult aspects of Parker's life, including his mental problems and troubled early marriages. But it's ingeniously filmed and sports a number of exciting performances, led by Forest Whitaker as Bird and Diane Venora as Chan Parker, the wife who apparently had the fullest relationship with him.
And it has the most exhilarating music I've heard all year: To make the sound track, Eastwood used real Charlie Parker solos and brought in first-rate jazz musicians to play along with them, for an effect that's simultaneously fresh and authentic.
Some of the credit for ``Bird'' goes to those instrumentalists, including Charles McPherson on alto sax, Ray Brown on bass, Jon Faddis on trumpet, and Red Rodney, who plays trumpet on the sound track and also appears (played by Michael Zelniker in a sizzling performance) as a character in the story. On-screen standouts in secondary roles include Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie and Hamilton Camp as ``the mayor of 52nd Street'' in the movie's most astonishingly filmed sequence - a long, fluidly photographed visit to Bird's natural Manhattan habitat.
This episode helped win ``Bird'' a special prize for outstanding technical achievement at last spring's Cannes Film Festival in France, where Mr. Whitaker also took the award for best actor.
``Bird'' isn't an easy film, and it doesn't always make an effort to be likable. But it's a dazzler - at least as good as ``Round Midnight,'' and that's saying a lot.