The film is a tribute to the life and music of jazz saxophonist Charlie "Bird" Parker. It is constructed as a collage of scenes from Parker's life, from his childhood in Kansas City, through his marriage to Chan Parker, to his early death at the age of thirty-four.
- 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
- Michael McGuire as Brewster
- James Handy as Esteves
- Damon Whitaker as Young Bird
- Morgan Nagler as Kim
- Arlen Dean Snyder as Dr Heath
- Sam Robards as Moscowitz
- Penelope Windust as Bellevue Nurse
- Glenn Wright as Alcoholic Patient (as Glenn T. Wright)
- George Orrison as Patient with Checkers
- Bill Cobbs as Dr Caulfield
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. 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. 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 dollars, not counting Eastwood's fee, although in interviews Eastwood sometimes said the film only cost $9.1 million to make.
Bird received positive reviews from critics, scoring 72% on Rotten Tomatoes. Forest Whitaker's performance as Parker earned him the Best Actor award at the 1988 Cannes Film Festival and a Golden Globe nomination. In addition, the film also won an Academy Award for Best Sound.
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. Musicians such as Ray Brown, Walter Davis, Jr., Ron Carter, Barry Harris and Red Rodney many of whom had played with Parker, were then hired to record backing tracks on modern stereo sound equipment. Dizzy Gillespie was on tour at the time of recording, so trumpet player Jon Faddis was hired to record his parts.
The results were a ground-breaking foray into digital music restoration. Although the blend of Parker's mono performances with the stereo band is, at times, a bit jarring to the ear, no one alive can adequately play the original Parker songs with anything approaching true fidelity to the original.