Bird by Clint Eastwood is one of the most interesting and underrated film of the 1980’s. It has always enjoyed a good reputation and is routinely considered one of the best films on jazz, but it never seems to quite reach a higher status of being a universal study of art, and I think it deserves a bit better. It’s one of the best films about music that I’ve seen and does an interesting job of turning Charlie Parker into a tragic hero of the tough and uncompromising variety that director Eastwood is enamored with in his films, which have always been very influenced by the grittiness of westerns. Parker is a tough and direct character who maintains his path in spite of great opposition and oppressive circumstances.
Eastwood is a hardcore lover of jazz, and the deep appreciation for the medium comes through the entire film, imbuing every shadowy and smokey club scene. We see Parker as an emblem for the jazz world which was mainly made of African American musicians who were not accepted by the society of their time due to racial paradigms even while they created the popular music of the era, were loved by audiences for their creations, and were in the best cases artistic geniuses. That is one of the deepest paradoxes of American society, and Eastwood is a much loved but gritty personality who was in a unique position to seriously portray that in the 1980’s.
That decade saw the rise of commercialism in film pushing out artistic integrity (it’s gotten worse since), and it saw a massive backlash against progressive movements of the 1960’s and 1970’s. Eastwood in some respects takes on that entire decade with a film that shows that American art is deeply formed by outsiders from its most vital roots. Jazz and blues are often called the only original American art forms, and it’s not a leap to make the case for that. They also are entirely formative for later rock music that grew out of them. Rock and roll is the music of opposition and freedom, and it inherited that from jazz being a great art form made by the descendants of slaves, some of the most oppressed of people.
Eastwood dedicated the film to musicians all over the world, and the movie is enamored with the freedom, profundity, creativity, and universally moving power of music. I can certainly express appreciation for that viewpoint, but Eastwood is masterful with how well he carries that idea. Jazz breaks through every barrier, but the fact of doing that so successfully also meant living on the edges of society, because not only was America deeply racist in Charlie Parker’s era, but the racism caused more concern about successful and talented people of color than even the average oppressed person.
The scenes of Parker playing are beautiful. Forest Whitaker does a nice job of filling his troubled and inspired suit in an era of smokey clubs, rampant racism, and creative people who were by contrast very accepting of anyone. Parker is caught between two worlds for much of his life – admired as a great musician and having played with prestigious people in excellent venues but also treated with scorn for having dark skin. This may have helped fuel his use of drugs as an escape, but that led to him being even more scorned. Eastwood’s focus on the problem of addiction makes Parker seem a bit paradoxical much like William Burroughs, genius and creative saint but also a deeply flawed, fallen, and troubled person.
Charlie Parker was addicted to drugs and this is an important part of the film. It’s been criticized for that as well, but I don’t find that theme to be overdone. Parker’s drug abuse was serious and unfortunate. It played a part in explaining his sadly shortened life, and drug abuse has been harmful to a number of musicians. Eastwood tries to find answers for that without ever acting too certain that he has them, and he also tried to warn other art lovers of the dangers inherent with that. Parker seems to be drawn to them in the film for a few reasons. One side comes from the brokenness of his life. Caught up in conflict, he escapes through heroin. Another part of it seems to come from his outsider status creating its own pressures. Both of those issues could help to explain the presence of drug problems in poor and minority communities, an escape from desperation.
The other part of Parker’s drug use has to do with ecstatic art though. The experience of music is a being outside of oneself in an altered state produced by melody and sound, and it may then be no surprise that so many musicians have traveled that path of destructive drug use. Nikki Sixx of Motley Crue was also addicted to heroin much like Charlie Parker, and the list goes on. Other people have observed the damaging effects of this, and it has served to clean up the music scene in more recent times very well to the point that alcohol is the far more likely substance of abuse, but stories and works of art like this film have done a lot to give artists and art lovers the realization that drugs are a dangerous world best avoided and a road to nowhere.
Undeniably though, the sound of intoxication is present in Parker’s saxophone playing. He is so fluid and colorful in his playing that if he had been on guitar rather than sax, his sound would be recognized as psychedelic. Of the many jazz greats, Parker alongside Miles Davis may be the closest to what became rock and roll. The bebop sound Parker helped to form was certainly a part of that development, and the speed of his sax playing alongside the strange gliding play between notes into a hazy synesthesia is where the guitar would go later on with rock. Sadly, his drug use as well predicted what would happen to a number of rock musicians who were similarly harmed or destroyed by the same thing.
Clint Eastwood’s film is then a lasting achievement. As time marches on, cinema has the beautiful ability to be a store of forgotten and lost times, and this 1980’s film captures the earlier era of jazz in a way that would be hard to do later on. Dizzy Gillespie was still alive when this movie was made, and some of the cultural issues the jazz era dealt with were easier to see in the 1980’s before digital developments changed music and culture to a much more packaged and reactionary place of over simplification. The film is gritty, fluid, and organic as real physical film is capable of, and it is sad to say that that both jazz and cinema seem to be leaving us. This was a topic well displayed later on by Damien Chazelle in his fine works Whiplash and La La Land, but Chazelle can only mourn what is gone. Eastwood still had some of it left to show us, and Charlie Parker’s memory and radical creativity can live on better with that.
As an uncompromising and troubled artist in a flawed and oppressive time, Bird is clearly a hero for Eastwood. He is as forceful a personality as anyone Eastwood has ever acted or directed, and the most fascinating thing about his direction of the film is that he is able to give so much personality to that perspective. Every cut, lighting choice, blocking decision, and camera angle seem to reinforce that. People beat up on bird, and he dies young, but he stays a great musician. Compared to the anti-hero, William Munny, of Eastwood’s great Unforgiven who drank way too much and lived to excess at times against a life he would later prefer of love and domesticity, Parker is also addicted, and he ventures out into music clubs to try to support his family. Where Munny could be cruel though when crossed, Parker is fundamentally a lover who had limited means but exceptional gifts. The force of those great gifts made jazz a different place and made rock and roll possible later on. The film deserves a full restoration and reappraisal as a major 20th century work.