by Pauline Kael
The musicians in swing bands wore tails (monkey suits, they were called) or bright-colored uniforms or spangled zoot suits; their leaders flashed their teeth and, if they were black, jiggled and jived. Black or white, they made us feel that entertaining us and keeping us dancing was the highest calling they aspired to—even if they’d played the same arrangements over and over—and that our happiness was their happiness. One of the ways the modern-jazz musicians of the postwar forties let us know that they didn’t consider themselves entertainers was by wearing their street clothes on-stage. Though this bebop movement was interracial, its front-runners were black, and men such as Charlie Parker, Dizzy Gillespie, Thelonious Monk, and Bud Powell ushered in a new hipster militancy along with the intricate music that they had developed late at night in Harlem jam sessions—the music they played for themselves. When the boppers began to get engagements, they didn’t care if you couldn’t dance to their music; they wanted you to listen—or, rather, they let you listen. Bebop never became widely popular; it was a jazz avant-garde movement, and the music, which seemed very demanding at the time, angered many of the older jazz musicians (possibly because bop intellectualized their music, speeded it up, made it abstract, and brought it new shades of emotion).
The boppers didn’t try to be ingratiating; they barely acknowledged the audience’s existence. The trumpet man Dizzy Gillespie—the cutup of the movement, in his beret and shades and with a little dab of goatee—used his quick, barbed wit on whitey; he became the symbol of the new playful yet hostile cool. The alto saxophonist Charlie Parker—Bird, the master of improvisation, and a man known for his chameleon charm and his cocky arrogance—became the charismatic figure of the artist who nakedly expresses himself in his art. Born in 1920, by 1945 he was part of a liberation with its own emblems and signals. As Grover Sales pointed out in Jazz (Prentice Hall, 1984), “Some beboppers refused to straighten or ‘conk’ their hair in defiance of a rigid convention of black show business. Charlie Parker’s close-cropped ‘natural’ made an early proclamation that ‘black is beautiful.’ ” Parker gave out other messages, in spite of himself. He was drug-addicted from the age of seventeen until his death at thirty-four, and though he said that he played best straight, and warned his admirers about the misery of addiction, he set the potent archetype of the self-destructive jazz artist. Heroin became the “in” drug for boppers.
Bird, starring Forest Whitaker and directed by Clint Eastwood, from a script by Joel Oliansky, has just opened, after being honored at the New York Film Festival. It was hailed as “the first honest jazz movie” by Parker’s biographer Gary Giddins in the October Esquire, and it’s being saluted all over the place. Yet what I saw was a rat’s nest of a movie—all flashbacks and rain. Eastwood has been conscientious: he hasn’t commercialized the material. But he hasn’t presented it, either, and he doesn’t draw you into what he does present—not even at the basic level of giving you something to see. The picture looks as if he hadn’t paid his Con Ed bill—the black actors are swallowed up in darkness. And, with the film flashing back and forth, you can’t get the hang of Parker’s life, and you don’t come out with much understanding of his achievement or what made him a legend.
Though the movie runs two hours and forty-one minutes, it doesn’t indicate what was going on in the postwar period—the resentment that the black boppers felt toward the white musicians who had been ripping them off, along with the agents and record companies and radio stations. (The boppers believed that their “difficult,” far-out music would defeat imitators.) And though you’re taken inside recreations of the Fifty-second Street clubs and of Birdland on Broadway, you don’t get the bop elation, or the heightened awareness of sex which the black and white intermingling brought about, or any hint of the beginnings of the movement among black jazzmen to drop Christianity (as the white man’s religion) and take Muslim names.
Forest Whitaker’s Bird trudges off to his gigs around the country like a jazz version of Willy Loman; he’s always fouling up—boozing and doping and smashing things. When his common-law wife Chan (Diane Venora) tells the doctor who wants to give him electroshock that he’s a very special, creative person, it’s the jazz equivalent of “Attention must be paid.” The script sinks to the level of attempting to explain Parker’s addiction as his way of soothing the pain of his ulcer. (He uses heroin instead of Gelusil.) From moment to moment, Whitaker’s performance is richly felt; he’s always believable, and, with his heavy hunched shoulders, he often looks like the photographs of Charlie Parker (especially in Parker’s last years). Leonard Feather, who knew Parker, says in the August Jazz-Times that five minutes into the picture he forgot he was watching an actor. Yet Whitaker—maybe it’s because of the way he was directed—comes across as just a genial big blob of a fellow who can’t get his life together. And since this overgrown kid doesn’t suggest Parker’s glow you don’t understand why so many women find him a turn-on.
Diane Venora brings an experimental, stagy tingle to Chan’s scenes—she gets something going. It’s almost incidental that she manages to resemble Chan Parker (who appears in Celebrating Bird, the 1987 video documentary co-directed by Giddins and Kendrick Simmons). It’s her mastering Chan’s low voice that’s the key to her performance. The voice is very controlled and self-dramatizing and slightly abrasive. (She sounds a little like Ida Lupino doing a good-bad bitch.) And you feel, of course, this is exactly the kind of passionate and intelligent jazz-struck girl who’d get involved with a suicidal, sponging genius-martyr like Charlie Parker. Some of Whitaker’s scenes with Venora have a pricklish originality even when they’re loaded with too much meaning. And a few of his scenes with Michael Zelniker as Red Rodney, the white trumpeter who toured the South with Parker, have something comic and unresolved in them—Parker shows a streak of “just kidding” sadism toward him. As actors, Zelniker and Whitaker play off each other in a way that Sam Wright (as Diz) and Whitaker don’t. (The dialogue Diz has been given can put you in a dull funk.) In general, the scenes between blacks don’t achieve any kind of intimacy. But then some of Parker’s scenes with whites are fairly awkward, too, and, except for Chan, the white women who are attracted to him are photographed like blond Nazi vampires.
In a late-night scene near the beginning, Charlie Parker and Chan run into the room when they hear their sick baby crying, and proceed to stand over the crib quarrelling. Neither one tends to the infant; the crying just disappears from the soundtrack. (Ramshackle scenes like this one are part of what the Times respectfully refers to as “the Eastwood oeuvre.”) It’s true that Eastwood has taken pains with Charlie Parker’s music. Unreleased tapes as well as studio recording were processed by Lennie Niehaus: in some cases, he eliminated the backup men and recorded new arrangements in stereo, retaining Parker’s solos. (All this is said to have been necessary because of the poor quality of the originals.) The effect is lovely and pure, but too much like listening to classics; the combos don’t really sound like combos. And, the way the numbers are scattered through the movie, the music doesn’t build the edgy excitement that drew people to jazz clubs. Why, then, are jazz critics, and most of the movie press, too, praising the movie? I think they’re impressed by the care and affection that Eastwood put into producing facsimiles of the bebop people and places and events. And jazz critics like to see jazz solemnized—that confers dignity on them. (Of course, stardom is sexy, and they, like the movie press, love having a reason to interview a big men’s-action star with an oeuvre.) And—maybe the capper—when a man who isn’t an artist makes an art film it’s just what they expect art to be: earnest and lifeless.
The New Yorker, October 17, 1988