Movies » Movie Review

Bird Watching




*** (A must-see)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Written by Joel Oliansky

With Forest Whitaker, Diane Venora, Michael Zelniker, Samuel E. Wright, Keith David, and Damon Whitaker.


** (Worth seeing)

Directed by Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons

Written by Gary Giddins.

Two telling documents that we have about Charlie Parker, both from the early 50s:

1) During a live radio broadcast from Birdland on March 31, 1951, there's an electrifying moment when Parker leaps into his solo on "A Night in Tunisia," combining cascading machine-gun volleys of notes--wailing 16th notes and dovetailing triplets--into what sound like two successive melodic somersaults, each one in a separate direction, that miraculously turn the rhythm around with shifting accents--an awesome tumble in midair over four free bars until he triumphantly splashes into the next chorus.

To understand the genius of that moment--a fusion of passionate acrobatics and spontaneous formal patterning--it might help to detect the evidence of rage that one hears just before the number begins. Symphony Sid Torin, an obnoxiously loquacious disc jockey, has been blathering at length about "Round Midnight," the previous number played by Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, and Bud Powell, which he has repeatedly called "Round About Midnight." He is recounting a long, self-serving anecdote about Billie Holiday when Gillespie plaintively bleats out, "Let me play my number!" Momentarily coming to his senses, Sid turns to Parker and says, "What we gonna do, Bird? We got one number more--"

His voice fairly dripping with disgust, Parker can only say, "Who needs ya?"

"'A Night in Tunisia'!" Sid grandly announces, deliberately mishearing Bird's jab as the song immediately gets under way. And the remarkable thing about Parker's break one chorus later is that it seems both to take over and to take off from his terse, embittered query--as if the quick transfer to music from speech allowed him to unfurl his anger in one dazzling, unbroken string of invective, transforming his three words into four asymmetrical bars of breathtaking invention.

(2) On a TV show called Stage Entrance, aired in 1952, newspaper columnist Earl Wilson and jazz critic Leonard Feather present Downbeat awards to Parker and Gillespie, who go on to play a version of the bebop standard "Hot House." This is the only surviving sound-film record of the greatest jazz musician who ever lived, and though Parker's solo is not extended, nor one of his best, it's enough to show his brilliance. The segment can be seen in its entirety (and is, incidentally, the most valuable and instructive thing) in Gary Giddins and Kendrick Simmons's video documentary Celebrating Bird, released last year to coincide with Giddins's book of the same title (and currently available on tape).

In the video, Chan Parker, Bird's last wife, introduces the segment by noting the killing look that Parker gives briefly to Wilson while the awards are being presented, in response to the clear prejudice and condescension in Wilson's spiel. While Parker smiles winningly and graciously as he accepts his own award, he trains a dark glare on Wilson when the latter calls Gillespie "Diz" and concludes, "You boys got anything more to say?" "Well, Earl," Parker says, with a subtle mixture of molasses and cyanide, "they say music speaks louder than words, so we'd rather voice our opinion that way, if you don't mind."

Parker's music does speak louder and stronger than words, and if I've lingered over these two fleeting examples of his speech and his anger, it's mainly to indicate a key element that I find missing in Clint Eastwood's remarkable depiction of Parker in Bird. While it must be said at the outset that Bird is an extraordinary achievement as a jazz biography, as a portrait of the jazz life, and as a work of screen writing and directorial craft, it is an achievement bounded by specific limits, most of them ideological and/or musical. The film runs a full 161 minutes, and for a commercial release is an unusually serious and uncompromising treatment of its subject. As a Hollywood fiction feature about jazz, it can't even be said to have competitors, and as confirmation of Eastwood's status as an ambitious auteur, it clearly surpasses everything else he's done--even if no small part of this is due to Joel Oliansky's script, and most likely to Chan Parker's unpublished memoir, Life in E-Flat, which served as its principal source.

Without questioning Eastwood's credentials as a jazz buff--it was he, after all, who encouraged Warner Brothers to get behind Bertrand Tavernier's Round Midnight--I wonder nevertheless how much definitive wisdom we can get about Parker's life from a staunch conservative Republican, a man who implicitly endorses attitudes and policies that helped to hound Parker to his death. This is not to contest his devotion to the man and his music, only to question the degree of understanding that accompanies it. Although the film leaps about freely in time, covering Parker's life sporadically from his childhood onward, it is basically structured around the last months in Parker's life--from a suicide attempt after a quarrel with Chan to his final collapse in Baroness Nica Koenigswarter's apartment in 1955. The film begins with a quote from F. Scott Fitzgerald, "There are no second acts in American lives," and while it presents Parker with much sympathy, complexity, and accuracy--helped in no small measure by Forest Whitaker's physical resemblance to Parker and his total commitment to the role--it also views him consistently as the sole agent of his own destruction.

Up to a point, this is a defensible interpretation of a man who was a junkie from his teens until his death at 34, and who had gargantuan appetites for alcohol, food, and sex. Beyond that point, however, one has to consider other factors, especially Parker's embattled status as an avant-garde innovator and his extreme sensitivity to racism--two factors the film pays lip service to, but hasn't the room or inclination to explore. Parker's life was an authentic tragedy, and Eastwood regards it as such, but he can't tell us much about what it meant to be a radical artist or a rebellious black man in the 40s and early 50s.

To think our way back to what bebop must have sounded like when it was new--in effect, to unlearn the musical culture that surrounds us today--is a difficult if not impossible task. Thus we can forgive (even if we can't fully excuse) one of the film's few musical gaffes: It shows a teenage Parker (played by Whitaker's brother Damon) being humiliated at a Kansas City jam session for his awkward solo, when the drummer hurls a cymbal at his feet. The incident is historically accurate--Jo Jones was the drummer--but the music being played at this session in the film is already bebop, years before it was developed in New York by Parker, Gillespie, Monk, and Powell. Also, as jazz critic Neil Tesser has pointed out to me, the nature of Parker's awkwardness here isn't accurate either. In the session, Parker--a risk taker from the beginning--moved out of the original key and got lost. In the film he errs in the opposite direction, playing a solo that the drummer regards as too simple or cornball.

To understand what it meant to be black and American 40 years ago is perhaps easier than unlearning bebop, at least in theory, but Eastwood is clearly less interested in this than he is in the music. His previous films are haunted by phallic and/or feisty women, and here Chan, very well played by Diane Venora, is certainly feisty; her first extended meeting with Parker is one of the strongest and most delicately nuanced scenes in the film. But apart from some brief reaction shots when Bird and Chan dance at a ritzy white nightclub, Eastwood gives not the slightest hint of what it meant to be an interracial couple in this country in the 50s; it's almost as if the question never occurred to him.

The nocturnal look of Bird is essentially derived from film noir: lots of rain and thunder, smoky nightclubs, slicked-down city streets, claustrophobic rooms and corridors, a sense of endless night. Part of the function of this oppressive and nearly omnipresent darkness, aside from emphasizing the dark inevitabilities of Parker's life, is to help us concentrate on the music. But the movies approach to the music is strangely divided, in more ways than one.

During the credits, we get a three-step history of Parker's musical progress--from a Kansas City tot with a tonette riding a pony in his backyard to a teenager traversing his porch while practicing on his alto sax to a full-blown jazzman at the height of his powers in a 52nd Street club, playing "Lester Leaps In." The final transition is almost as dynamic and exciting as the bone-to-spacecraft cut in Kubrick's 2001. Eastwood's panning camera curves slowly around Parker's profile on the bandstand as he pours out torrents of notes and ideas; eventually it frames him head-on, and the effect is galvanizing. The up-tempo tune is by Lester Young, Parker's first major musical love (as well as Eastwood's), and the solo, like many others in the film, is not a familiar one from records, but a rare private recording of Parker's alto that has been remixed with accompaniment by contemporary sidemen--in this case Monty Alexander (piano), Ray Brown (bass), and John Guerin (drums). This strategy functions quite well in the movie: the solo is presented under optimal audio conditions, yet it has the punch of music that's being heard for the first time. But the process of combining Bird with players some 40 years later raises a number of aesthetic issues.

Like the colorization of black-and-white movies, this process muddles history even when it is carried out intelligently, as it often is here. For one thing, it leads to many possible misunderstandings. Several months ago, when a prominent film critic reviewed Bird from Cannes, he surmised that the remixing was done because Parker's original accompanists were poor--an assumption that made my blood run cold as I realized how easily Bud Powell, Miles Davis, and Max Roach (among others) could thus be assigned to the trash can. (This is not unlike the crackpot assumption of some younger viewers that the only reason Orson Welles didn't make Citizen Kane in color was that he lacked the proper technology.) The artistic inferiority of the "remakes" of certain Parker numbers by this method, even when Parker's solos remain the same, is patently evident when the two versions are played back to back (as Neil Tesser recently did on his radio show with "Now's the Time"). In the case of a primordial masterpiece like "Koko," the jagged fury of Parker's solo is sustained by Roach's demonic drum break on the original; the remixed version, which replaces Roach with a string of conventional solos, allows the energy to dissipate into banality.

These complaints apply mainly to the sound-track album. In the film, which has myriad dramatic needs, the technique is much more defensible (indeed, the electric charge and immediacy of "Lester Leaps In" would be partially lost without it). Yet the dramatic needs of Bird take a different kind of toll on the music. By my own rough estimate, more than 90 minutes of the film have to pass before we hear one full Parker solo from beginning to end without interruption or interference (a buoyant, shrieking version of "Cool Blues"). From this standpoint, Bird is less satisfying as a listening experience than Round Midnight, despite the fact that its music is immeasurably better.

Unless my ears were playing tricks on me, the film does manage to improve on three Parker recordings, although in one of these cases improvement is the last thing that's needed. Parker made several mainly unfortunate recordings with strings near the end of his career, a poignant attempt to achieve "class" and legitimacy; the results often sounded like a swan drowning in gallons of bubble bath. Lennie Niehaus, the movie's musical director, created new string arrangements for two such performances, "April in Paris" and "Laura," that minimize the slushy embarrassment and maximize the emotion in Parker's originals. (The most successful Parker foray in this direction, and his own favorite recording, "Just Friends," is not included in the film.) By contrast, the improvement of Parker's disastrous version of "Lover Man" for Ross Russell's Dial label--played on the verge of physical and emotional collapse, and made a good deal more bearable in the film's version through the partial substitution of Charles McPherson's alto sax--limits the tragedy and horror of Parker's performance, one of the most searing evidences of pain on record.

In narrative terms, Eastwood and Oliansky necessarily limit their coverage of Parker's life and career, seeing them mainly from the viewpoints of two white characters, Chan and Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker), and, to a lesser extent, from those of Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) and an invented black character named Buster Franklin (Keith David). It's amazing how conscientious the film is about honoring certain details, and curious how slack it is about glossing over certain others. Bird is especially good about drawing attention to Parker's intellectual interests and aspirations, reflected in everything from his flowery speech to his adoration of Stravinsky and the "Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam." (In Paris, he once befuddled an English jazz critic who was interviewing him by responding to each question with a separate stanza from the "Rubaiyat.") Parker's enjoyment of popular culture was no less intense--he died laughing at a vaudeville routine on TV that he remembered from his childhood. Eastwood has gone to the trouble of digging up the kinescope of the original, but then he doesn't bother to make the childhood connection. Similarly, the film records Bird's desperate plea to Chan that he not be buried in Kansas City, but fails to note that he actually was buried there--after a funeral service in Harlem, which the film shows--at the insistence of Doris Parker, his previous wife. (To add insult to injury, the date of death inscribed on his gravestone was 11 days off.)

If Bird lacks the sentimentality of Round Midnight, it also lacks the accumulation of feeling that made the climax of Tavernier's film stronger; Bird's beauty and power come in flashes, and they're rarely allowed to build. There are times when Eastwood seems to be in over his head, but when Pauline Kael calls him "a man who isn't an artist" making an art film, one wants to scream in protest. (Can't he at least be granted the status of an imperfect artist? Or does he have to apply to Kael for permission to make movies at all?) Certainly Eastwood's well-advertised desire to be taken seriously can't be confused with his concrete achievement, but I would defy any two Kael-certified artists working together--say, Brian De Palma and Philip Kaufman--to come up with a jazz film with a tenth as much feeling for the music and the milieu as this one.

What the film mainly lacks, apart from the first meeting of Bird and Chan, is the kind of sustained portrait that we get of Parker in the prologue of Ross Russell's much-maligned but indispensable 1973 biography, Bird Lives!--a 24-page rendering of Parker's opening night at Billy Berg's in Los Angeles, his first California date, in the mid-40s. While Russell's use of fictional techniques, including imagined conversations, has led many commentators to dismiss his book, the fact that he knew Parker and was present in the club that night gives the scene an epic density that Bird--which chronicles the same evening rather differently--achieves only in snatches. (Later in the book, there's a heartbreaking letter from Chan to Russell in 1947, when Parker was recuperating in Camarillo, that tells as much in three pages as Eastwood can manage in an hour.)

Although Bird is stuffed with inside references and in-jokes for musicians and jazz buffs (a bit like the way early French New Wave films are filled with movie references), its basic address is to the unspecialized general public, and from this standpoint its overall treatment of Parker's life is acute but partial. For uninitiated viewers who want to learn more, original Parker recordings and Russell's superb biography would be the best places to start.

The hour-long Celebrating Bird would be a convenient substitute for either or both of the above, as would Giddins's book of the same title, insofar as both do a fair job of filling in major areas that Bird either neglects or confuses. In the video, we get extended commentaries from Parker's first and last wives (among others), many short clips of musicians who preceded and/or played with him, a coherent chronology of his career (with many still photographs), and a lot of information that confirms, expands, or (in a few cases) contradicts the facts we get in Eastwood's film. (One of the most telling instances of the latter comes from Chan, who says that Parker spoke of wanting to move to Europe--which is directly at loggerheads with a scene in Bird where Parker, conversing abroad with an expatriate musician, unequivocally rejects this possibility out of patriotism. It's one more indication of how Eastwood's ideological biases seem to play a role that is not exactly neutral.)

Nevertheless, a few caveats about Celebrating Bird (book and video) are in order. Giddins may be more up-to-date and reliable than Russell in his research, but he is also much sketchier, and his effort to clear the decks by dismissing Bird Lives! in a sentence is not to be trusted. (Calling it "often more roman a clef than biography" is confusing nonsense, particularly because Russell previously published a roman a clef about Parker and Lester Young called The Sound--a different matter entirely.)

Turning to the video, the fact that Giddins is basically a writer shouldn't necessarily be held against him, but it does make for certain limitations in his approach. The standard approach of most jazz documentaries--to let us hear a few bars of a solo and then smother the rest under voice-overs--is followed fairly consistently here, even if it's often handled with some discretion. We are able to hear what Parker's "Lover Man" solo originally sounded like, but after alerting us to the importance of the famous "Koko" solo, Giddins inexplicably lets us hear only an inferior alternate take, without any acknowledgment of this fact, and then cuts it off before it's over.

Life photographer Gjon Mili shot a documentary film of Parker playing in 1950, the sound of which has been lost and it is this footage that we see at the beginning of the video and at many subsequent junctures. As J. Hoberman recently wrote in the Village Voice, the video "step-prints" this footage of Parker, slowing his motion "so that you can watch him think." Unfortunately the thoughts you're seeing aren't the thoughts you're hearing: another Parker solo is added to the silent footage, so unavoidably the synchronization is off.

Considering the nearly parallel developments of film and jazz as the new art forms of this century, it is disheartening to consider how seldom they've been able to work together interactively without some fatal compromise on either side, which usually means one serving as ballast for the other. Documentaries like Celebrating Bird (and countless others that are much worse) have been hampered by a nervous reluctance to let the music speak for itself, while the fiction films have been undone both by ignorance about the music and by an uncertainty about how to integrate it into a dramatic context. For examples of the latter, one could cite otherwise sympathetic fiction films like Too Late Blues and New York, New York as well as otherwise unsympathetic ones like Paris Blues and The Cotton Club; from this standpoint, Martin Scorsese's effective cameo in Round Midnight can be interpreted as a form of penance for his indifference to jazz history in New York, New York.

All these problems were admirably faced and solved by a single filmmaker in 1929, the first year of talkies. In two low-budget shorts made respectively with Bessie Smith and Duke Ellington, St. Louis Blues and Black and Tan, Dudley Murphy set precedents that in some respects no subsequent jazz films have lived up to, Round Midnight and Bird included. Admittedly, both films are fictional, and I am being a bit rhetorical when I state that St. Louis Blues is valuable chiefly as a documentary record of our greatest blues singer, while Black and Tan, with its audacious poetic linkage of death and orgasm with the structure and emotion of Ellington's music, stands as the great example of utilizing jazz within a narrative. The important point is that in these two short and mainly unheralded films, despite some dated racial stereotyping and primitive methods of sound recording, Murphy set down certain fruitful possibilities for jazz and film that have seldom been considered since.

The best that can be said for both Bird and Round Midnight is that they both manage to build on some of these possibilities. Neither is an unqualified success to the degree that Black and Tan is, but each represents an exciting quantum leap after more than half a century of intervening dross about the music. Both significantly build on the poetics of death and dissolution that Black and Tan broached so powerfully, and both help to rectify a form of sociological and artistic neglect that remains one of this country's biggest scandals. Parker was conceivably the greatest musical mind this country has ever produced, and if no movie is ever likely to do him justice, Bird at least makes an invigorating start on the project.

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