As Don Cheadle’s Miles Davis movie ‘Miles Ahead’ arrives in cinemas, Sarah Slade revisits a classic film biography of another jazz great that you may have heard of.
I hate the word “iconic” – or at least the modern usage where anything prominent or praiseworthy is called “an icon”, like we should paint it gold and stick it on an altar in the living room. However, I can’t think of a better word to describe Charlie Parker’s standing in the history of jazz.
He wasn’t the first saxophonist to popularise bebop and you could even argue that he wasn’t the finest player of his day; but he developed much of the vocabulary of modern jazz, and became an icon (yes that word) of wayward musical genius for years after his death. He was unreliable and/or off his face on alcohol or drugs, yet he lived for music and the music he played was transcendent in its loveliness.
And there it is; the recipe for a good biopic or respectful Ken Burns documentary, full of pieces to camera or slow pans across grainy black and white shots of dingy clubs and saxophones. Clint Eastwood, a longtime fan of Parker’s and respectable amateur musician, went for the biopic.
Let’s do the good stuff first.
The film is handsomely set in a meticulously realised New York of the 1940s. There are big cars, people smoke, they wear a lot of brown to hide the nicotine stains. It always… always seems to be night time and the colours are lush and warm and inviting.
The music is sublime and treated with the respect it deserves. Eastwood and his musical director, Lennie Niehaus cleaned up recordings provided by Parker’s widow, Chan, then spliced them with accompaniments from modern-day musicians. The sound rightfully won an Oscar for Best Sound in 1989 and garnered plenty of nominations in other categories.
Forest Whitaker is by turns inspired, wheedling, generous, mischievous and utterly charming, then broken, raging and desolate. He even mimes Parker’s solos convincingly. The supporting cast do their best; Diane Venora in particular tries to project some of Chan Parker’s passion and lust for life but ultimately comes across as a slightly impatient enabler who turns increasingly shrewish as misery is heaped on her, but that’s not her fault.
There you go. You can stop there, Eastwood fans, because the rest of this piece is going to get uncomfortable.
Bird is a film of its time. Made at the end of a decade dominated by AIDS and The War on Drugs that centred primarily around American adventures in Latin America. Afghanistan was a heroic little rebellion against Soviet oppressors, Iran was the enemy and nobody could point to Iraq on the map. Clint Eastwood’s dilemma was how to make a film celebrating the life and genius of a long-term drug addict while also projecting the message that drugs were bad in accordance with the mood of the time. Let’s not forget that Eastwood was a Republican and vocal supporter of the then president, Ronald Reagan, whose late wife, Nancy, was a prominent campaigner against drugs.
How does he do it? He makes a film that is predominantly, unremittingly, intensely miserable, because drug addicts are all about the broken promise. Eastwood doesn’t shy away from depicting the horrors of drug abuse, the breakdowns, the scary needles, the physical torment, and the effect on family and friends. But he limits the audience’s exposure to the broiling racial antagonism of mid 20th century America to a few sniffy looks from bystanders at Chan and Parker’s mixed race children, and a whistlestop tour of the deep South seen through the eyes of Red Rodney Chudnik, a Jewish trumpet player ‘disguised’ as an albino blues singer to get around the colour bar.
The film strolls through key scenes in Parker’s life, punctuated by an image of a flying cymbal that symbolises (yes I know) Parker’s ‘start’ in the world of bebop. According to legend, the 17-year-old Parker was so bad at his first jam session in a Kansas club, the drummer threw a cymbal to the floor, his signal to get off the stage. The legend goes on to tell of Parker practising up to twelve hours a day, every day for the next four years until he got good enough. But we don’t see that (thankfully. Scales are dull. Listening to someone else do scales is even duller). Actually, neither do we see the first Mrs Parker, whom he left behind in Kansas City.
We next pick up Charlie the jobbing musician in New York about ten years later, getting together with Chan, a jazz-loving dancer. The chronology gets a little mixed up around here, since they bounce around the 1940s like a Grant Green guitar solo, but anyway he works with Dizzy Gillespie (the ‘serious’ one), gets his collar felt by corrupt coppers, shoots up, shags miserably, drinks miserably and falls in love with Chan. Neither seems particularly happy about it, I must say. Musical interludes of stunning beauty are the only bright spots in an increasingly darkening landscape. His daughter contracts cystic fibrosis and dies. He shoots up and shags a tearful blonde, gets arrested, tours Paris. This may not be in the right order, because by then I was hanging on for the next gig and wondering if the skinny kid in the quintet was supposed to be Miles Davis (in real life, Miles was playing with Parker in 1945, but he’s nowhere to be seen here).
This is a long film. Correction, this is a long, sad film. Parker’s life was full of pain and addiction, but is this a movie about jazz or a movie about an addict and his love affairs with a bit of music thrown in? Certainly the music is great, but it presented each solo as a finished thing: one scene shows Parker playing a five-note hook; five minutes later they’re on the stage, performing. It misses out on explaining why Parker, Gillespie, Hawkins, Davis et al played the way they did. Parker and Gillespie were part of a vanguard that took jazz off the dance floor and explored and pushed at musical boundaries, challenging the received wisdom that ‘negro music’ was somehow intellectually deficient, or good only for dancing. Bebop was a call to action and a declaration of intent. In Bird however, it’s a pretty soundtrack for a set of bad, bad choices.