Clint Eastwood’s Bird: The Good, The Bad, The Apocryphal
By Matt Silver
You get a pretty good sense "Bird's" intended visual aesthetic from its lobby card. Warner Bros., 1988.
Part I: Prologue, Immediate Reaction, Forrest Whitaker, Bird's Cinematography, and a General Verdict
I approach Bird as someone who loves jazz generally and knows more than the casual fan but less than the historians who get paid to be historians. Having said that, these are my thoughts – the good, the bad, the ugly—about Clint Eastwood’s Bird (1988).
The famous filmmaker Spike Lee, whose father Bill Lee, a jazz musician, supposedly knew Charlie Parker well, has criticized Bird for overplaying Parker’s character and behavioral flaws and underplaying the warmth and sense of humor that drew people to him.
Lee may very well be right—I can’t say; I didn’t know Charlie Parker personally, nor do I know anyone who did. But my sense is that Lee, and others who have criticized Bird similarly, are overlooking the most obvious thing about this depiction: It’s a movie! A big-budget Hollywood entertainment for as broad an audience as there can ever be for something about jazz or a jazz musician. Lee, more than anyone, should recognize that Eastwood’s treatment of the subject is not a documentary; after all, Lee’s no stranger to based-on-a-true-story moviemaking. He's been good (Malcolm X) but far from perfect (Summer of Sam). Trying to balance historical accuracy and biographical integrity with commercial entertainment value is a razor’s edge for artists in every medium to walk.
Having not yet watched so much as scene one of Bird, my preconception of it is thus: Whatever its stylistic or filmic faults might be, Eastwood succeeds in making a film that is visually evocative, attempts to honor jazz and musicianship (which Eastwood profoundly loves according to all that’s been written or said about him), tries to paint a comprehensive picture that both does a conflicted and complex subject justice while also playing well to critics and, of course, making money. Spike Lee’s made films for both PBS and for-profit investors; he knows the difference.
With that, I’m pressing “Play” and will be back with my thoughts on the other side.
Immediate Reaction: Three Hours Later
Oh, boy. Where to begin. Bird is simply a bear of a film. I hesitate to call it an epic. Like “genius,” that descriptor gets casually thrown about too frequently. It’s not The Godfather, and it’s not Once Upon a Time in America. I’m confident in calling those films “epics.” This…this is epic-adjacent.
But Eastwood’s Bird is a movie of scale, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable or by accident that watching Bird brings to mind bona fide epics/epochal films like the above-mentioned leviathans from Francis Ford Coppola and Sergio Leone, respectively.
What all three share in common is the way they make the viewer feel—like you’re moving as carefully as possible through a photo album documenting a history that is of profound, lifeforce-sustaining meaning to you. Or it’s at least of that level of importance to the filmmaker, and he’s going to do his damnedest to make you understand how it feels to care about a story, a history, and a time so deeply.
Some of the film’s stylistic choices feel dated and/or cheesy in 2023. For instance, the recurring cutaway to a wayward drum cymbal floating through darkened space in slow motion whenever Charlie Parker verges on getting lost in memories of past humiliations—probably a bit on the nose. There are some other cuts and fadeouts intended to evoke emotion that feel too ham-handed and fall flat. It’s like these techniques fall in that anti-Goldilocks zone of being just old-fashioned enough to feel stale today and not old-fashioned enough to communicate gravitas or its cheaper, used-car-salesman of a cousin, nostalgia.
And story-wise, the non-linear narrative doesn’t make events so much hard to follow but it does handicap the story’s ability to invest the viewer emotionally. For viewers not at least somewhat familiar with Charlie Parker’s history, both personally and professionally, expect to feel at least somewhat adrift; the emotional stakes for the individual characters will likely feel remote, abstract. Even—and maybe especially—if you know the timeline of events, the way Eastwood has re-shuffled the deck temporally, rearranging the cards in the idiosyncratic order of his choosing, is disorienting. Neurotic in real life and as a movie watcher, I paused to google events frequently, just to, at least approximately, orient myself in the space and time of the story.
Maybe that was a mistake on my part. My feeling is that Eastwood would prefer you to trust that he’s in control and to just sit back and let the way he presents the story wash over you, to let his riddle unfold organically without meddlesome interference from viewers who know just enough to be dangers to themselves.
No such laissez-faire viewer here. Though next time I’ll trust you more, Clint. Because there were a lot of things here I really liked and could even grow to love upon re-watching.
He’s been recognized as an actor’s actor for a while now. A dignified film actor of the sort who presents just as credibly on the stage. James Earl Jones; Paul Robeson; Sideny Poitier; Harry Belafonte; Morgan Freeman. Whitaker’s in that conversation.
He’d gotten strong reviews for his role in an ensemble cast in Oliver Stone’s Platoon two years earlier, but Bird (1988) was his breakout role. Unless you’re Charlie Parker’s biographer or a family member or one of the dwindling number of living musicians who worked closely enough with Parker to really know him, Whitaker’s portrayal is pretty unimpeachable. His Parker is as perceptive, playful, intellectually curious, and warm as he is compulsive, masochistic, insecure, and ultimately self-destructive.
It's easy and therefore common to criticize the tortured genius archetype as a tired fantasy, but that makes it all the more impressive when it’s carried off. It’s also easy to criticize a director for romanticizing or glamorizing the price-of-genius concept, but I don’t think Eastwood does that here at all.
I think it’s fair to say Eastwood’s reverence for Parker is sacrosanct—and yet, he never approaches deifying him. If that’s what critics like Spike Lee wanted, they should just read any given NPR profile of a jazz musician. Kissing someone’s ass is no real way to show them respect or honor their story. Viewers instinctively know it; so did Eastwood.
Cinematography and General Verdict
Fans of Gordon Willis’s single-source-of-light chiaroscuro regime from The Godfather trilogy will feel right at home in the ambivalence and moral ambiguity evoked by cinematographer Jack Green’s darkened set pieces. The theatrical lighting seems meant to evoke the feeling of watching a stage play, a title fight at Madison Square Garden, or, at the risk of stating the obvious, bebop in one of 52nd St.’s jazz clubs.
52nd Street on a rainy night in July 1948. Eastwood presents a very similar shot in “Bird,” except here the legendarily lively thoroughfare sits in rare repose. Photo by William P. Gottlieb, courtesy Library of Congress.
Eastwood shows a reverence not just for the music and musicians of the bebop era, but also for the physical places where the music—and everything else—happened. It’s a reverence not for the physical structures themselves but what they incubated, the atmosphere that nurtured the music just as much as the music charged the atmosphere. Each venue up and down 52nd St.—and its high-wattage neon signage—gets its own close up: Onyx, 18 Club, 3 Deuces, Club Carousel. The marquee announcing Count Basie is just as important as the fast-talking street concierge hustling for tips in the manner of a knockoff Joe Pesci.
On-the-nose? Heavy-handed? Earnest without the slightest shred of irony or self-consciousness, probably to a fault? All of the above.
Eastwood’s made himself vulnerable to all of these very valid criticisms by making a very public-facing piece of art about something he deeply cares for. This is a better film than Damian Chazelle’s Babylon (2022), but the two are very similar in that respect. Both filmmakers had earned the right to be this maudlin and they went for it, results be damned. You’ve got to respect that.
Read on for more in-depth analysis of 1988's Bird in Part II: Parker's Relationships