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By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
October 14, 1988


Clint Eastwood
Forest Whitaker;
Diane Venora;
Samuel E. Wright;
Keith David
Under 17 restricted

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There's one problem with "Bird," Clint Eastwood's labor-of-love portrait of jazz legend Charlie Parker. It feels like a labor of love.

Eastwood's respect for the renowned saxophonist runs so deep it disappears underground; and only the faintest signature arises from those devotional depths, about a guy who played a mean improvisational sax and had a heroin problem. To this one-note legend, Eastwood adds an extended music track, some Parker contemporaries (Dizzy Gillespie and Red Rodney), a rocky relationship between Parker and nestmate Chan Parker (Diane Venora), flashbacks within flashbacks, cinematographer Jack Green's dark grit and a phenomenal title performance by Forest Whitaker . . . and comes up with something less than the sum of its parts.

You'll leave "Bird's" smooth flow of nightclub images, dark motel rooms and recharged Parker tracks with new respect for Eastwood the Director. But you'll also leave none the wiser about Parker the Man. Whitaker sweats, vomits, blows and wails as the Bird (so named for hanging around jazz clubs like a yardbird), laying in some minor-key grace to Parker's self-destruction along the way. But he never lets you into his darkest fears.

Venora, as Chan, the woman who had her sweet-16 birthday party at the Cotton Club, who knew great music, who slept with great music and who weathered the Charlie Parker storm, shows a warm, engaging spirit. But, as Parker plunges deeper into the inevitable morass, she's left peering over the edge, crying over the spilled iodine Parker tries, at one point, to kill himself with.

Eastwood and screenwriter Joel Oliansky figure the longer you spend with Parker, the more licks you'll pick up. In its circular, nonlinear way, "Bird" is a scale above Hollywood's average road-to-ruin drama. It has the freeform air of a jazz improvisation, but is marred by the accompanying imperfections -- expositional false notes that head nowhere, self-conscious artistic moves ("Bird" is dedicated to "musicians everywhere") and rather lightweight backup from Keith David's (fictional) Buster Franklin, Sam Wright's Gillespie and Michael Zelniker's Rodney, who spend much of their time waiting on flashback cues or beaming adoringly at The Legend.

"Bird" plays on way past closing time (it runs two hours and 40 minutes). After you've met, and even gotten to like, Bird, he deteriorates -- and deteriorates -- by way of heroin, booze, fewer and fewer bookings in New York nightclubs, the death of his daughter, more booze and heroin and a trip to Bellevue, among many things. You may catch yourself wondering if he's ever going to die, if you'll ever find out more about him, or why this "Bird" is like a great auk -- fascinating in its own peculiar way but incapable of flight.

© Copyright 1999 The Washington Post Company

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