Jersey Boys – Directed by Clint Eastwood
For all the folks who’ve been waiting for a sugar-rush musical since Grease in 1978, your number just came up. I will admit that I never saw Jersey Boys onstage, but my beloved Aunty Joan – who would definitely have been amenable to a threesome with Rodgers and Hammerstein – did and was sort of ah-ah, so-so about the experience. Three relentless hours of slickly reproduced Four Seasons’ hits, with very sparse dialogue and much focus on Frankie Valli’s shrieking falsetto was, she said after I called her yesterday, like too much free soft-serve ice cream. No matter how hot it is outside and how much water you wash it down with, you can only take in so much sugar until your gag reflex starts to kick in.
Luckily, the movie doesn’t attempt to do the same thing! Clint Eastwood certainly isn’t my favorite director, but he has surprised me now and again over the 30 films he’s directed. Beyond his obvious successes with movies like Unforgiven (1992), Flags of Our Fathers (2006), and Gran Torino (2009), he has quietly put out professional surprises like Play Misty For Me (1971), Bird (1988) and The Changeling (2009). Eastwood may have surprised many critics this time around, but I’m not surprised because he learns from his mistakes. The ‘mistakes’ he’s correcting in this case being Joshua Logan’s dreadful Paint Your Wagon and Des McAnuff’s glitzy, energetic Broadway stage original of Jersey Boys. Instead of being a loud, endless assault and battery of the senses, Eastwood does what Broadway can’t, making it feel just a bit like life. Not in some social-realist miasma influenced by Rossellini, say, but in very brief moments of hyper-reality spaced between intervals where John Lloyd Young – who originated the Valli role on Broadway – lets it rip with that spine-straightening street-pop falsetto.
What Eastwood connects to is the hard-scrabble streets of blue-collar ‘Noo Joisey.’ As in Gran Torino, the director may be a crusty old republican in his 80s, but he’s still wise to street toughs and their addiction to the kind of persona and pride which is far more likely to get them killed than drugs or thieving. The group’s addiction to bad behavior and petty wars over girls and cash stays with them for life. In a kind of two on two division, one pair of Seasons become true craftsmen and artistes, while the other two are plain old dim knock-around guys, and the division gets bigger and bigger as they hit it big and steadily grow richer.
There are more than a few great ‘frame’ scenes in the movie between songs. One in particular stands out as a Jersey mob boss (Christopher Walken) negotiates the Seasons’ threatened future over a $162,000 gambling debt that band member Tommy De Vito (Vincent Piazza) owes. These guys take their shrill machismo to a new level of hysteria as the mute Season (Michael Lomenda) and Valli stage a coup and take over the group.
What goes AWOL here is the depth of Valli’s partnership with songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the last to join the group and the only one without a thug past and De Vito’s nemesis. The film has a Rashomon-type structure, where each Season is a narrator for four separate acts, although this is problematic because this point-of-view story telling isn’t followed through. Typically, a few times, out of nowhere, one of the boys begins chattering at someone off-screen. Is it a monologue? You never figure it out. Oops!
Performance-wise, Vincent Piazza steals the movie away from Young’s Valli. It’s not easy to be a doubt-riddled bully without mining clichés, but Piazza pulls it off. Relentlessly obnoxious, De Vito’s most redemptive behavior quirk is his habit of using hotel towels as snot-rags. By comparison, beyond owning a glorious set of pipes, Young’s Valli is far easier to play as he grows from painfully awkward to confident.
The writing of Woody Allen’s old partner Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice is what falls short here. The story of the Four Seasons barely uses women of any kind save as props. And though the brilliant buildup to Can’t Take My Eyes Off You leads to a great payoff, there’s more than a little lacking holistically. I’m sure you’ll love it if you’re a Four Seasons fan. As an entertainment, I’m not so sure.