Picks and Pans Review: Bird

UPDATED 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 10/03/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

What's the life of jazzman Charlie Parker to action hero-director Clint Eastwood? Glad you asked. Before Eastwood ever heard the words "Dirty Harry," he was a jazz buff who played piano and flügelhorn as a boy in Oakland, Calif. It was there, in 1946, that the teen Eastwood first heard Parker's improvisational wizardry on alto sax—a style that came to define the bebop era. Eastwood was transfixed. By 1955, Parker—a heroin addict from the age of 15—was dead. The doctor who treated Parker estimated the bloated wreck before him to be 65; he was 34. Parker's music continues to influence jazz, a uniquely American art form that, along with the Western movie, Eastwood thinks his countrymen have a tendency to undervalue. Eastwood has directed at least one classic Western, 1976's The Outlaw Josey Wales. Now, at 57, he pays tribute to his other obsession. Bird, running nearly three hours and brimful of brilliant music and performances, is a labor of love. Parker's solos have been taken from original recordings and mixed with new accompaniment by such current jazz stars as Ron Carter and Monty Alexander. But Eastwood and his production team evoke the jazz club ambience of the '40s and '50s with striking artistry. Nixing star casting (Richard Pryor was once set to film Joel Oliansky's screenplay), Eastwood chose Forest Whitaker—Robin Williams' chubby buddy in Good Morning, Vietnam—to play Parker. ("Bird" was a nickname that Parker earned because of his appetite for chicken.) Whitaker is no match for the dazzling sax great Dexter Gordon, who played a similar fictional jazz legend in 1986's 'Round Midnight. But in a wrenching, wounding performance that took the Best Actor prize at the Cannes Film Festival, Whitaker finds the essence of the seductive, self-destructive Parker. Diane (F/X) Venora is fresh, feisty and radiant as the woman whose common-law marriage to Parker produced two children. Eastwood moves in and out of Parker's life, choosing those telling moments when life and art intersect. The result, besides being an ardent antidrug film, is hypnotic and heartbreaking. Powered by Eastwood's passionate commitment, this Bird flies. (R)

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