Bird (film)

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Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Clint Eastwood
Written by Joel Oliansky
Music by Lennie Niehaus
Cinematography Jack N. Green
Edited by Joel Cox
Distributed by Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date
September 30, 1988
Running time
155 minutes[1]
Country United States
Language English
Budget $9-$14.4 million[2][3]
Box office $2.2 million[4]

Bird is a 1988 American biographical film, produced and directed by Clint Eastwood of a screenplay written by Joel Oliansky. The film is a tribute to the life and music of jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. It is constructed as a montage of scenes from Parker's life, from his childhood in Kansas City, through his early death at the age of 34.

The film moves back and forth through Parker's history, blending moments to find some truth to his life. Much of the movie revolves around his only grounding relationships with wife Chan Parker, Bebop pioneer trumpet player and band leader Dizzy Gillespie, and his influence (both musically and into the world of heroin addiction) on trumpet player Red Rodney.



As the film begins, Charlie 'Bird' Parker (Forest Whitaker) is cheered by an audience to a small jazz club in New York City. He goes home feeling exultant, although he recounts problems during the performance, but his wife Chan Parker -née Richardson- (Diane Venora) is in no mood to have sex or be kind to him. During the following row, Chan wonders whether she did good in letting him in. The shouting wakes the baby up, and Charlie says he'll tend to him; however Chan prefers that he keeps away from the baby. Charlie feels heart-broken at that, so he takes an overdose of some drugs. His body can't take them anymore, so he falls to the floor all bloodied.

Charlie goes to hospital, but feels the need to take drugs, which leads to a fight with an alcoholic patient (George Orrison). The director of the clinic worries about the finances of the treatment, and Chan blames his painful bleeding ulcers for Charlie's fall into drugs yet again. Charlie has flashbacks - being shown a dead body as an adolescent, a cymbal being thrown at him after playing poorly. A doctor wants to give Charlie the shock treatment, but Chan feels that such a thing will end with Charlie's creativity and brilliant performances for good, which will leave him unable to provide for himself and his family.

Chan reminiscences about Charlie's debut in New York City - "it's Charlie from `just around'". Another flashback shows the young, inexperienced Charlie (Damon Whitaker) participating in a jam session, and playing badly. He stops playing, humiliated, after a frustrated drummer throws a cymbal at him, and everyone laughs. This story is being told by another musician to a talkative doorman (Chris Bosley) - they then witness a powerful performance from the adult Charlie, as does the young Chan. The other musician later throws his instrument into the river.

Returning from hospital after his suicide attempt, Charlie appears on the first page of the newspaper. Charlie admits that he owes everything to Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright) on his way to the probation panel judges. Morello (Richard Jeni) is trying to get Charlie some work. Agent Moscowitz (Sam Robards) keeps on pestering Charlie trying to obtain the names of his drug dealers.

Charlie reminiscences about him going on a tour to California. In the next flashback we see him waking Dizzy and his wife Lorraine in the middle of the night so that he writes some music he's just improvised. Charlie makes a pass at Chan. Frog (Tony Todd) is also interested in Charlie Parker's girl. Charlie used to say to Chan that she made him feel "peaceful", this did not sit well with her: she wants "to make men crazy".

After a performance, Esteves (James Handy) visits him but Charlie doesn't want to talk to him. Charlie goes out with Chan, but his drug habits get on the way. She is also constantly complaining about his many other girls. She is made pregnant by another musician. Charlie leaves, leaving her with the problem.

One night, on a Hollywood tour, he meets trumpet player Red Rodney (Michael Zelniker). Charlie tells him never to touch drugs and gives him the opportunity to play with him. That night, Charlie has sex with Audrey (Anna Levine). She takes him to the home of Stravinsky, whom Charlie admires. Charlie rings the bell. He goes to the door with his wife, but Charlie does not dare to say anything. Charlie longs to have such a good home at a nice neighbourhood close to Thomas Mann, Huxley and other famous writers. Audrey goes to the same dentist than Stravinsky - this is how she learned where he lived.

Charlie's music is off the air due to morality concerns. Charlie has problems finding drugs, so he resorts to drinking. This leads to another spell in hospital. Chan tries, with difficulty, to convince club owners (Steve Zettler & Al Pugliese). Charlie goes to Chan's as his eldest daughter and her grandmother are waiting for him. Charlie is again being pressured to give the names of fellow drug addicts to Moscowitz. As Charlie is broke, he embarks on a Parisian tour, which is so successful that he has the opportunity to stay there forever. A fellow musician, Buster Franklin (Keith David), urges him to stay - he will enjoy a better life, with people respecting him and his music.

Back in New York City, he needs to convince his musicians John Wilson (Hubert Kelly) and Billy McNabb to wait for him. Red Rodney offers him a gig playing at a Jewish wedding to earn some money. He improvises, as usual. The bride's father (Lou Catell) is happy about it and pays him what was agreed. Charlie is awaiting the opening of the club Birdland - he will play there on the opening fight. Rodney phones Chan home because Charlie has gone back to his old ways. Rodney is a star in his own right. Charlie offers Rodney some gigs in the deep south with a racially mixed band. Rodney is worried they'll get lynched, but Charlie says he's "got it covered". Charlie has been telling his Southern contacts that Rodney is an albino black singer - this means that instead of going to a nicer white hotel, he will share the blacks' accommodation - which is not very good. Red has to sing the blues, at first with little confidence, but then he goes with it.

Red pretends to be sick with kidney stones and goes to see a local doctor (Richard McKenzie). The nurse (Gretchen Oehler) tends to him and gets his feigned history of previous kidney stones. He is, in fact, a drug addict, trying to obtain a strong painkiller from the corrupt local doctor, to offset his withdrawal symptoms. He offers some extra cash. The nurse stays silent throughout.

Charlie is alarmed to discover Rodney's addiction. Back in New York City, Charlie plays a successful gig at Birdland and is introduced to Baroness Nica (Diane Salinger). Later, Rodney and Charlie have a conversation in which each one doubts that the other one will see forty. Moscowitz and a female spy have been tailing them. Rodney is arrested and gets a year in jail. Deciding that "a quintet isn't the way to go right now", Charlie begins recording and performing with a small orchestra. We see Charlie playing concert halls, winning awards, and recording songs. Chan has got three children by now. They have all moved onto a better apartment. One of her daughters, Pree, is deeply sick. Returning home one night, Charlie feels so unwelcome that he leaves for a bar. He asks Rodney where he can find some more drugs. Soon afterwards, he's walking half-dizzy in the pouring rain. Moscowitz arrests him.

At the hearing, Charlie's lawyer (Peter Crook) cannot is unable to persuade the judge (Mathew Faison). Charlie would rather go to jail (and retain his cabaret card) than stay on probation for a long time.

Charlie and Dizzy get a gig in another town. After a conversation in which they contrast Charlie's self-destructive ways with Dizzy's well-organised life, we see Charlie picking up another woman at the club. Meanwhile Chan has to take Pree to hospital. A nun (Patricia Herd) asks Chan whether Pree has been baptized. Charlie is onstage when he receives a message that his daughter has died. Charlie sends a series of telegrams to Chan, at first formally expressing condolences but becoming increasingly distraught. The woman he hooked up with witnesses his ordeal.

Returning to the opening of the film, and the scene of Charlie making a suicide attempt. We see Charlie and Rodney at the latter's apartment, talking about a future gig, with Charlie explaining how he arrived at his soloing style, finding a new approach to harmony whilst accompanying a singer named Violet Welles (Ann Weldon). At one point, reflecting on the state of his career, Charlie turns around and urges Rodney to kick him in the ass.

Chan has moved with her children to a smaller shabby house which her mother can't rent, in the hopes of mending it and making a stable home for her family. Charlie visits them and then leaves to a gig in Chicago. He has to drive as nobody would pay for his plane tickets - he's got infamous for his lack of reliability, his missed gigs, etc... Meanwhile in New York City, all the jazz bars have been turned into strip joints. The doorman tells Charlie that something even worse is happening at the Paramount Theatre. Charlie visits the theater - a rhythm and blues / rock 'n roll gig is taking place, and Buster Franklin is one of the featured musicians. Remembering their conversation in Paris about music, drugs and racism, Charlie is shocked, feeling Buster has sold himself out by returning to the U.S. and taking a commercial-music gig.

After arriving late for the Chicago gig, Charlie is told by his agent Bernie that he can't find him any more work, as he has the tendency to show up too late. Bernie tells Charlie to call Chan, who is really worried about him. Charlie tells her about a Boston gig, and pretends that everything's all right. Chan tries to be supportive, but she can't believe him anymore.

Charlie goes to Baroness Nica's. She calls a doctor (Don Starr), who tells her that Charlie is beyond repair. Charlie drinks, as usual, he watches TV and laughs. It looks like he's having a heart attack. He remembers about people he knew, Dizzy, Chan, Pree's coffin, the dead body he saw as a boy, the drummer who threw the cymbal at him... Nica finds him dead.

Nica tries to reach Chan on the phone desperately to give her the news. A paramdeic (Jim Lane) thinks that Charlie was 65 years old, and is startled when Nica corrects him: Charlie was only 34.


In the 1970s, Parker's friend and colleague Teddy Edwards shared his reminiscences of the saxophonist to Oliansky, who had wanted to make a biopic about Charlie Parker starring actor Richard Pryor.[5] The property was originally owned by Columbia Pictures, which traded the rights to Warner Bros. at Eastwood's instigation, in exchange for the rights to what would become Columbia's 1990 Kevin Costner vehicle, Revenge.[3] There was a delay of a few years while the trade was completed, and by then Pryor had lost interest. The film was eventually shot in 52 days for $14.4 million, not counting Eastwood's fee,[6] although in interviews Eastwood sometimes said the film only cost $9 million to make.[2][3] Locations used for filming include the Sacramento Valley, Los Angeles, and Pasadena, California as well as New York City.[2]


Clint Eastwood with actors Michael Zelniker and Forest Whitaker, and then-partner Sondra Locke, promoting the film at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival.

Bird received positive reviews from critics, scoring a 78% "Fresh" rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Forest Whitaker's performance as Parker earned him critical acclaim and several awards, including the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival[7] and a Golden Globe nomination. In addition, the film also won the prestigious Grand Prix of the Belgian Film Critics Association and the Academy Award for Best Sound (Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander, Vern Poore, Willie Burton).[8] The film has however been criticized for its use of composite characters, its absence of any depiction of Charlie Parker's first three wives (all of whom, unlike Chan, were African-American), and for the way it over-emphasizes his friendship and working relationship with Red Rodney (white) at the expense of Miles Davis (who is only mentioned in passing). Another common criticism of the film is that it overstates Parker's level of fame (for instance, the imaginary front-page news headline about his suicide attempt).


Initially, when Columbia owned the project, the studio executives wanted to hire musicians to re-record all of Parker's music, largely because most of the original recordings were in mono, and considered of insufficient sound quality to accompany a feature film. Eastwood had some recordings of Parker made by Parker's wife, Chan, from which he had a sound engineer electronically isolate Parker's solos. Contemporary musicians such as Ray Brown, Walter Davis, Jr., Ron Carter, Barry Harris, and Red Rodney were then hired to record backing tracks on modern sound equipment. Dizzy Gillespie was on tour at the time of recording, so trumpet player Jon Faddis was hired to record his parts.[3]


  1. ^ "Bird", Australian Classification.
  2. ^ a b c Hughes, p.139
  3. ^ a b c d Pavlović, Milan (Fall 1988). "Kein Popcorn-Film (Not a Popcorn Film)". steadycam (10): 18–20. 
  4. ^ "Bird", Box Office Mojo.
  5. ^ Interview with Teddy Edwards on ArtistInterviews
  6. ^ Biskind, Peter (April 1993). "Any Which Way He Can". Premiere. New York City: Hachette Filipacchi Media U.S.: 52–60. 
  7. ^ "Festival de Cannes: Bird". Retrieved 2009-07-25. 
  8. ^ "The 61st Academy Awards (1989) Nominees and Winners". Retrieved 2011-10-16. 


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