Charlie Parker – Bird Songs, the latest documentary from Jean-Frédéric Thibault, Illégitime Défense, tells the tale of one of the most influential jazz musicians of all time. The film, which sets the legend’s work against a backdrop of a 1940s USA in social, political and cultural upheaval, offers a fascinating looks at Parker’s work, his times and the lasting influence he has had on music and musicians to this day. Jean-Frédéric Thibault discusses the film’s genesis, its process, and what the future holds for a film set to soar.
Charlie Parker documentary takes flight
Unifrance: Charlie Parker, jazz… where did the idea for this documentary come from?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: I followed a recommendation made by Franck Médioni, who was our historical advisor on my previous film, George Gershwin, the American Classic, that I read the biography of Charlie Parker that he had just finished. I must admit that my knowledge of the musician was very limited, and I discovered not just his incredible journey but also, and above all, the indelible mark he made on the history of music.
Writing and directing a film about someone that you are in the process of discovering allows you to bring a new and objective take on the subject, devoid of the kinds of prejudices that you often have regarding things you know more about.
Among other things, I found out that Paris was the only city in the world, apart from Stockholm, where his music was understood and appreciated during his lifetime, when he was marginalized in the USA. It is always interesting when handling a subject that belongs to another continent to find a link with France or Europe whenever possible.
Unifrance: ARTE was instantly won over by the idea and then the film itself.
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: Music, and jazz in particular, is a niche audience, and the only channel to which this film would appeal was ARTE.
Emelie de Jong, Director of the Arts and Performing Arts division of ARTE, and Esther Lehoczky, programming manager for the channel (in particular the music category), came on board very quickly to support the project.
Our collaboration with ARTE dates back to 2013, to the first film that we wrote and produced with Arnaud Xainte, Cartier, the Little Red Box. It was a film linked to the exhibition at the Grand Palais in Paris about the high-end, internationally renowned jeweler.
Over the following years, we were lucky to establish a trusting relationship that enabled us to produce a dozen documentaries, including two docu-dramas. Their support and accompaniment have always been a huge help to make these projects, and in the case of Charlie Parker, their response to the finished film went way beyond our hopes.
Unifrance: How did you build the documentary?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: The fascinating thing about making a documentary film is that it undergoes multiple changes between the moment you write the project proposal for the channel and the final delivery.
With Charlie Parker, my initial idea was to make a kind of film noir, as grubby as New York would have been in the 1940s. Parker died at the age of 34 from drug and alcohol abuse. He was a classic victim of a system in which violence and segregation were just part of everyday life for Afro-Americans. However, through archive footage and interviews, the film became less and less dark, before finally ending up as a light and positive documentary.
That’s how I realized that in reality the most important thing is not the length of a life – even if it is awful to die so young – but rather the mark we leave and what we hand down to future generations. In Parker’s case, it’s no coincidence that the world’s top contemporary jazz musicians and saxophonists – many of whom we were lucky enough to interview – draw inspiration from his music and his improvisation. The door he opened in the history of music has never been closed.
Unifrance: Why did you choose to include animations?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: With this film, I faced two challenges. The first was a lack of archive footage, as there are only two films where we see Parker play (at the time, Afro-Americans were not very bankable on TV), and the second was how to illustrate the music sequences.
Animation seemed the most appropriate solution to highlight the music. My sources of inspiration were, on the one hand, Parker’s record covers – which featured a very modern design for the time – and the paintings of Jean-Michel Basquiat (three of which were dedicated to this musician) that offered the poetry and slightly raw feel I was going for. Entrusted to the company Darjeeling, these animations followed the musical rhythm and were handled in a very contemporary manner. They reflect the energy of the musician’s improvisation.
Unifrance: In addition to tracing the life and work of Charlie Parker, the documentary offers a look at the historical context.
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: The work of any artist is always linked to events in their personal life and – above all – their environment. Parker participated in the cultural revolution that shook America in the 1940s.
The lightness of the Roaring Twenties was gone; the States was entering one of the darkest periods in its history. With its involvement in the war, economic and social difficulties, and radical racial segregation, the country was heading for a total shake up. Hollywood invented film noir, painting became abstract, literature depicted the end of the American dream, and music was emancipated.
The jazz musicians of the 1940s no longer subscribed to the dominant model and started to reclaim their music, which had been turned into dance tunes by the great white bands. We’re far from the “good black” stereotypes of the 1920s and 30s, and Parker, Dizzie Gillespie, Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis were considered bad boys who drank and used drugs. They revolutionized jazz by re-appropriating the roots of the music, that is to say making it a means of expression for the oppressed once again. We find that again in contemporary rap and slam.
Unifrance: Does the film also reflect the current political and social situation in the USA?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: History is forever repeating itself, and the festive period of soul and disco in the 1980s gave way to a darker protest culture in the 1990s with the emergence of rap. I consider Parker to be not only one of the fathers of the Beat generation, but also of the rappers who vocally reproduced his musical improvisations and had the same kind of image – that of the American bad boy in revolt against racism and a new kind of segregation.
Unifrance: For this program, how did you co-ordinate between France and the USA?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: Obviously, the COVID pandemic prevented us from going to the USA for interviews. So we worked with a head operator and sound engineer over there and conducted all the interviews by videoconference. The head operator also had to handle the cutaway views of New York that I wanted to use, which he did brilliantly. To be honest, apart from a lack of human contact, we didn’t really encounter any difficulties in terms of organization and filming –thanks to the professionalism of our local team.
Unifrance: The story of an American jazz musician who dies in the 1950s told by French film-makers. How do you position that on the international market?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: Music documentaries in general and jazz ones in particular are obviously a niche market among viewers. However, since there are very few made, music aficionados are always very receptive when presented with these programs. As a rule, films labelled “Arts and Culture” are always harder to sell than social documentaries. But you can still get a surprise with audience figures you were really not expecting. For example, the docudrama we made about Elisabeth Vigée le Brun, Marie Antoinette’s portrait artist, saw remarkable figures over multiple broadcasts on ARTE, as did the film about Yul Brynner that I co-directed for them at the end of last year. Viewers often move in mysterious ways, and sometimes that can be extremely gratifying.
Unifrance: How have buyers reacted so far?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: For the moment, Charlie Parker – Bird Songs, has only been broadcast on SVT in Sweden (they pre-purchased), and we have had very positive feedback from the program manager, who really liked the film. We can’t wait to get feedback from other buyers.
Unifrance: When will it be broadcast?
Jean-Frédéric Thibault: ARTE has not yet confirmed the broadcast date for Charlie Parker – Bird Songs. As the film was well liked, I think that an airing within the music slot before the end of the year, to coincide with the Christmas holidays, is a possibility.