Review: Bird (1988)

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A fitting forebear to the upcoming J. Edgar, in anticipation of which this very retrospective was undertaken, Eastwood’s 1988 Bird too looks at the dark personal life of a celebrated public figure: jazz saxophonist Charlie “Yardbird” Parker.

Beginning with Parker’s attempted suicide following the death of his infant daughter, Bird delves into the musician’s past, following his rise to fame in his field, his budding relationship with his eventual wife Chan, and his slew of problems with drugs, alcohol, and a musical milieu ever changing.

Only the second of Eastwood’s thirteen directed films not to feature the filmmaker himself in the cast, Bird is a passion project of the long-time audiophile, his love of jazz undeniably a key part of his opting to helm this biopic. Focusing solely on direction for the first time since the 1973 Breezy, Bird is certainly Eastwood’s most well shot film to this point in his career, featuring a cinematographic dream team blending the talents of director of photography Jack Green with lighting consultant and Eastwood’s future cinematographer Tom Stern. The deep blues of the jazz clubs heavily accentuate the consuming darkness of Parker’s home and personal life, invoking a sharp juxtaposition between the triumphant glory of his career and the overwhelming tragedy of his existence behind closed doors. Parker is a man with a destructive lifelong marriage to his demons, trusting in heroin to relieve him from his ulcer pains, and in alcohol to get him through his periods of going cold turkey. “If you wanna play like Bird,” he sarcastically asks of Red Rodney, an aspiring jazz trumpeter particularly admiring of him, “you gotta shoot shit like Bird, that it?” Parker is intent on rescuing Red from the tumultuous sea of heroin addiction he has essentially indoctrinated him into, questioning him as to whether he expects to live to see 40. “Do you?” comes the rhetorical response, leaving Parker to ominously foresee his own young corpse. A man haunted by his celebrity status outweighing his reputation as a talented musician, Parker is unable to cope with the life of an artist and the pressures thereby brought to his family life. In a performance that earned him the Cannes prize for Best Actor, Whitaker believably flitters from a pitiful creature to one we fear, his considerable frame rapidly turning from an emotional wreck to a threateningly imposing shadow. Eastwood and Whitaker together explore the character without prejudice, not afraid to highlight the ways in which his flaws affected his relationships with those around him. Clocking in at a sizeable 154 minutes, Bird’s one overtly clear failing is in its inability to sustain the same level of interest over this running time, its beginning and end far more effective than its somewhat baggy centre. That said, though it may drag in its first ninety minutes, its final hour is so well constructed, so inherently tragic, so emotionally draining almost to the point of being difficult to watch, that it more than makes up for any prior problems in pacing. Heaped in the tragedy of Parker’s life, Bird does that thing all great biopics should: objectively portrays to us a life, and in the process invites us to consider our own.

A fantastically well-shot film, Bird’s photography progressively darkens in time with its tone, eventually obscuring faces altogether in the shadowy depths of the neon-lit cities Parker struggles to find work in. Bitterly tragic and uncompromisingly real, it shows at the same time an immensely talented musician and a deeply flawed human, exposing the truth of a life off the stage, and the tears of the clown.

[notification type=”star”]80/100 – Bitterly tragic and uncompromisingly real, it shows at the same time an immensely talented musician and a deeply flawed human, exposing the truth of a life off the stage, and the tears of the clown.[/notification]

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About Author

Ronan Doyle is an Irish freelance film critic, whose work has appeared on Indiewire, FilmLinc, Film Ireland, FRED Film Radio, and otherwhere. He recently contributed a chapter on Arab cinema to the book Celluloid Ceiling, and is currently entangled in an all-encompassing volume on the work of Woody Allen. When not watching movies, reading about movies, writing about movies, or thinking about movies, he can be found talking about movies on Twitter. He is fuelled by tea and has heard of sleep, but finds the idea frightfully silly.