Bird (1988): Eastwood’s Biopic of Troubled Jazz SaxophonistCharlie Parker, Starring Forest Whitaker

Clint Eastwood directed Bird, a fascinating biopic from a screenplay by Joel Oliansky, about the life and music of the great Charlie “Bird” Parker.


The tale 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.  The movie revolves around his 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.

Narrative Structure:

The tale begins in 1939 Kansas City, Missouri, when the young alto saxophone player Charlie “Bird” Parker performs at the Reno Club. However, his rapid, sporadic playing gets him jeered offstage. Moving to New York City, Charlie begins performing at different jazz venues on 52nd Street and meets trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie (Samuel E. Wright). While Charlie performs with Dizzy, their style of jazz becomes known as “bebop.”

Charlie meets Chan Parker (Diane Venora), a dancer and jazz lover, but she refuses his advances and moves to Chicago, where she gets pregnant with another man’s child.

Charlie’s addiction to drugs and alcohol worsen, and he is hospitalized for months.

After Charlie gets clean and is released, he goes to Paris, where he finds loyal audience for jazz and bebop. However, he returns to New York and performs at Birdland.

Later on, Chan and Kim move in with Charlie, and he and Chan have two children, son Baird, and daughter Pree.

Charlie is again arrested for drug possession and put on probation. He loses his cabaret card, and is unable to perform in New York.

Depressed by Pree’s death and his faltering career, Charlie tries to kill himself by drinking iodine, but survives.

Meanwhile, all the former jazz clubs on 52nd Street have been turned into strip clubs. Missing the audition and embarrassed to tell Chan, Charlie goes to Baroness Nica (Diane Salinger), a wealthy jazz music patron, and passes out. A doctor arrives and advises Charlie to go to the hospital, but he refuses.


In the last scene, while watching TV with the Baroness, Charlie suffers a heart attack and dies at the age of 34.

Eastwood, a musician himself, shows strong emotional affinity with the material. He give the entire picture a darker than usual visual look, which underlines the grim tone of most of the proceedings.

Bird played at the 1988 Cannes Film Fest, where Whitaker’s performance as Parker earned honors including the Best Actor Award.  Whitaker would win an acting Oscar in 2006 for another biopic, The King of Scotland.

Though greeted by positive response from critics, Bird failed to find an audience and it is one of Eastwood’s biggest commercial disappointments.

Forest Whitaker as Charlie “Bird” Parker
Diane Venora as Chan Parker
Michael Zelniker as Red Rodney
Samuel E. Wright as Dizzy Gillespie
Keith David as Buster Franklin
Diane Salinger as Baroness Nica de Koenigswarter
Michael McGuire as Brewster
James Handy as Esteves
Anna Thomson as Audrey
Damon Whitaker as Young Bird Parker
Arlen Dean Snyder as Dr. Heath
Sam Robards as Moscowitz

Oscar Nominations: 1

Sound: Les Fresholtz, Dick Alexander, Vern Poore, and Wllie D. Burton

Oscar Awards: 1



Produced, directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Joel Oliansky
Cinematography Jack N. Green
Edited by Joel Cox
Music by Lennie Niehaus

Production company: Malpaso

Distributed by Warner

Release date: September 30, 1988

Running time: 160 minutes
Budget: $14 million
Box office $2.2 million