Thursday, February 26, 2009
Clint Eastwood started directing his own films as far back as 1971's Play Misty With Me, but even his acclaimed films received their accolades more for Clint's on-screen performances and their stories than his direction. The common consensus is that he began to hint towards some skill with a camera starting with High Plains Drifter, but for my money his 1988 biopic of legendary jazz saxophonist Charlie Parker is where he finally became a serious filmmaker in his own right rather than simply an actor who directed himself. Bird lays down a great deal of groundwork for the musician biography that became so popular in recent years while sidestepping a great deal of the clichés that came with the genre.
The first thing you'll notice about Bird is its structure. Most biopics arrange an artist's life in fairly linear fashion, filtering out the detritus to pinpoint the hubs that propelled the person forward from obscurity into fame, from fame into decline, from decline into redemption, etc. Then, of course, the filmmakers throw all the filtered-out stuff back in in an attempt to provide context to the big events, picking out the choicest bits of tabloid-fodder and using it ostensibly to give us a "deeper" look into the artist's life and creative process.
Eastwood, at least, does not lie to us. For 2-1/2 hours, he takes you deep into the heart of Parker's drug and alcohol addictions, focusing on them so unsparingly and for so long that finally we begin to understand the man, but not his art. No, the director is smart enough to know that drugs, creative beneficiary that they are so often called, may help create art at first but will ultimately destroy it. Bird is less a biopic of one of the greatest musicians in American history than a searing portrait of a junkie headed towards oblivion.
In that sense, we do not spend a great deal of time on Parker's extraordinary music, though of course we get many scenes of him in smoky jazz clubs, blistering ahead with equally vital jazzbos such as Dizzy Gillespie, the man who essentially made Parker. Eastwood went back to the old mono tapes of Parker's standards, had the sax solos separated out, then bolstered until the fill the screen with their power. Most credit Parker with "inventing" (no form of music is ever really just made from scratch) the bebop subgenre, in which smooth melody largely fell by the wayside in favor of fast tempos and harmonic improvisation, and these piercing, impossibly crafted solos show a true genius at work.
Most of the story takes place in the last few years of Parker's short life. The excellent Forest Whitaker portrays Parker as a fundamentally good man forever plagued by the terrible mood swings and bouts of depression brought on by his heroin problems. When we do flashback to his early life, it's chiefly brought on by the reminiscences of his peers. We hear the Robert Johnson-esque tale of Parker's early performances, where he was so bad that drummer Jo Jones threw one of his cymbals on the ground to stop Parker from making that dreadful racket. Humiliated, Parker retreats to the shadows for months to practice. When he emerged months later he was 'Bird.'
The rest, however, follows a the cycle of an addict: Parker gets hooked, winds up in rehab, cleans himself up, then someone offers just a little drink or just one hit, and it all starts over again. Each time Parker's loyal wife Chan (his last partner and the only one shown in the film) knows it won't last, but that can't suppress her happiness. She's smart enough to know that drugs are a part of Charlie as much as his saxophone, but she's too lovestruck to get herself out of the relationship.
Interspersed with this constant stream of brutal honesty, Eastwood throws some humor in there. Parker meets Red Rodney, a trumpeter who aspires to Parker's skill with the sax, and before long Rodney gets hooked on heroin with the implicit understanding that he did so to be like his idol. The two forge a friendship and Rodney joins Parker's quintet. The problem? They have to tour in the segregated South, so the band takes to calling Rodney "Albino Red" to avoid any problems. Later, the quintet winds up at a Jewish wedding of some of Red's friends, and somehow wind up the wedding band. The result is a hilarious sequence in which the quintet slowly turns Jewish standards into bop improv sessions, to the delight of the guests.
But those moments of joy are few and far between. Eastwood uses his stark camera style to bathe the world of nightclubs and dives in heavy shadow, always highlighting how grim Parker's future will be. As the film progresses, Parker's jaw-dropping solos slowly morph into a sort of jazz funeral for himself, upbeat with a hint of deep sadness and resignation. I suppose you could dismiss the film as a anti-drug message, as Gene Siskel did, but I think it's more than that. Eastwood simply films from the point of view of an addict; for him, the music went from being the focus of his life to a distant second to the drugs. That is the greatest tragedy of Parker's life, and putting that on-screen instead of a Hollywood-ized martyr is what makes Bird very close to a classic.