I just got finished watching Bird. I was excited to learn about this 1988 biopic film, directed by Clint Eastwood, about Bebop jazz saxophonist Charlie “Bird” Parker. Just as of recently I have been become infatuated with jazz. Historically it has only ever been a peripheral interest of mine, but I have always wanted to delve deeper, and these last few months has been my chance.
As a recovering junkie, and devoted, at one time in my life, to the Beat Generation, I have taken a keen interest in all the junkie jazz musicians, especially the ones from the Bebop era, which would have been around the same time William Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, Lucien Carr, Herbert Huncke, and Gregory Corso would have been frequenting jazz joints in New York City. My first interest was Chet Baker, as I had heard the name and one of his albums, the name of which escapes me at the moment, is the first full jazz album I loved all the way through. As I searched for more, and still unsure as to who or what I was looking for, mistaking the name Charlie Parker for Chet Baker, I stumbled upon Parker’s work with Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Mingus, and Fats Waller and Miles Davis, and the list goes on and on. Well I fell in love to put it mildly.
Amidst my desperate obsession to ingest as much jazz as possible, I am far from limiting myself to just receiving it aurally. I need to read jazz, watch jazz, hear jazz, talk jazz. I need to know how this greatly elusive and inspirational art form became the very backbone of American art and yet seems to be the most ephemeral and dissipating of contemporary interest. So I enrolled in a History of Jazz class at PSU, where I am currently enrolled as an English major, minoring in Creative Writing (go figure). I have been watching the Ken Burns’ Jazz ten part special, which I was excited to learn existed, after I mistakenly accredited Martin Scorsese’s special on the blues to Burns. Through the course I was introduced to a clip from the movie The Legend of 1900 about Jelly Roll Morton, which I have still yet to watch. But when I discovered it, I started searching for jazz movies. I learned about the, hopefully, soon to be released Chet Baker biopic, Born to Be Blue, Baker played by Ethan Hawke. I learned about the upcoming Miles Davis biopic played by Don Cheadle, Miles Ahead. But then I discovered a very hard to find Bird.
Parker is played by Forest Whitaker, a favorite of mine; so I was beside myself with intrigue. I tried and tried to find pirated copies, as that is how I like to watch most of my movies, as I stick pretty closely to the starving artist title with the utmost integrity. But I had to settle on renting it from Amazon, as I was unable to find any other copy. Let’s just say that I am glad I spent the little amount of $2.99 to rent the standard definition version. Outside of the obvious thrill of watching Forest Whitaker take charge of his role, and the useful little tidbits I learned about Charlie Parker, this film watched more like an after school special that barely alluded to drug use. At only one point in the movie does the audience see a hypodermic needle in full plain view of the shot. The rest of the time, the drug use was barely alluded to through antiquated colloquialisms, that unless you have a devout experience with heroin, or know enough about Charlie Parker, coupled withy a strong back story to the history of heroin and it’s street names and the lifestyle that comes with it, you might not know until the end of the film that Parker suffered from heroin addiction for the majority of his short life.
And if that isn’t enough, the dialogue is obscenely obtuse. Apparently Parker had a knack for the overdramatic, but even after they barely comment on that in the film, one still is unable to make any sense of Parker’s painfully sweeping moods, or lack of facial cues as to possible sarcasm. I resigned to misunderstanding a lot of what was going on in the relationship between Parker and his wife Chan early on in the film. One has to operate under the idea that Chan and Charlie speak in some sort of code that no one can understand to make sense of their dialogue in the film. There are also a healthy number of unclear flash back transitions. One is unsure what time period the film is in, until they recognize where in the narrative the film makers want us to be. The opening scene is of Parker’s suicide attempt, assumed to be not long before his death, and the film flashes back for no apparent reason and then back to the present again, and in and out of timeline again and again. I found myself thinking we were in one timeline at one point till I recognized Chan’s haircut to be of the opposite timeline, in which case I would have to go back to the spot where jump in the timeline was, so as to not miss anything in the constantly jumping narrative. (For my less literary readers, this last sentence is hard to follow for the sole purpose of exemplifying what watching the film is like. It is heavily intentional, and I regret telling anybody, as blogs are not naturally supposed to be literary)
I regrettably detested the film. I am glad I saw it and would suggest it to anyone devoted to jazz or Parker himself, but to the casual movie goer who is unsure of their dedication to art or artist, skip this film and watch something else. I am sure the Jelly Roll Morton film should be great, but then again, who knows. I guess I will have to report back as to my findings there as well. Anyways, it is well beyond my bedtime and I am supposed to sit through a friends tattoo tomorrow. So good night, and good luck.