With Ray currently playing in theaters and earning accolades, it's time to spotlight a great musician's bio-pic that somehow hasn't gotten its popular due over the years: Bird (1988). Directed by Clint Eastwood, Bird is the story of jazz legend Charlie "Yardbird" Parker, the brilliant saxman who helped usher in the revolutionary bebop sound in the '40s and '50s. Parker was also an alcoholic and drug addict, making his story a sad and short one, even though his musical impact was gigantic and timeless.
There are pitfalls when putting together a bio-pic of an artist; there's especially a tendency to paint the subject as a saint or to give short shrift and little understanding to the talents that actually made him or her famous. Eastwood never comes close to falling into either trap. As a lifelong jazz fan, Clint infuses his own passion for the art form into the film. A viewer who has never heard of Parker and has no taste for jazz will understand the distinct genius and importance of his music. At the same time, a jazz devotee who owns a prized stack of 78s won't find it at all dumbed-down for the sake of accessibility. Instead of a couple bars of a tune here and there, music is a central character in the film. And thanks to some seamless technical wizardry, most of the saxophone solos used in the film are actual Parker recordings. As for the man, his demons are examined without soap-opera dramatics or apologies; he is shown as the flawed human being he was rather than some mythological figure given a pass because of his gifts as a musician. Even with his drug use, which was infamous, the film focuses on the emotional toll of the addiction rather than spending time with the specifics of needles and heated spoons.
Forest Whitaker is flat-out magnificent as Bird. This was his first starring role, after supporting bits in Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Good Morning Vietnam, and the then-27-year-old Whitaker simply nails it. He's an actor who never seems to give a bad performance, even in dreck, but here we are treated to the full range of his abilities. He won the Best Actor prize at Cannes that year, and deservedly so, but he got lost in the shuffle when Oscar nominations came around. Diane Venora is equally wonderful as Parker's wife, Chan. Venora's performance makes Chan a much more complex figure than simply the long-suffering wife of an addict and philanderer. The scene in which she and Bird speak for the last time on the phone is a masterpiece--both say that they're sorry and that they love each other without using the words.
Eastwood's work as a director is still underrated, in spite of his Oscars for Unforgiven and recent nomination for Mystic River. His iconic image as The Man with No Name and Dirty Harry dies hard. But his Bird is an intimate epic worthy of masterpiece status.