Jersey Boys

Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay and musical book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Featuring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Christopher Walken

movie web site

[This is the second of five off campus reviews generated while I was a 2014 O’Neill  National Critics Institute Fellow.]

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Jersey Boys Director Clint Eastwood, who refined his screen persona as a tough cop Dirty Harry and in spaghetti westerns, now brings his directorial eye to a musicalized, sanitized story of four singing kids from Jersey who blend their do-wop voices to form a 1960s singing group that burns bright, burns out, and inspires at least one solo career. The music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons at the film’s core is unvarying stylistically, the storytelling structure a bit creaky and superficial, and that age-distanced directorial eye is remote and uninspired. While my toe occasionally tapped to the memory of Four Seasons music, this film did not, in fact, make my day.

The biopic is narrated in roughly chronological order by singer Frankie, three of the other “four seasons,” and selected other male characters. Which versions of the story shared by the four narrators and by the action we see is true? There are rare overlaps of informants telling us of the same event, which could provide a deeper understanding. Rather, this is a serially shared set of anecdotes amidst the bare bones of complicated lives.

Frankie Valli, born with names with many more syllables, is played here with defensible imitative skill by John Lloyd Young. His parents support him, worry about him, and then fade from the story. We see Frankie emote at events (a wife leaves, a daughter dies young) without ever understanding him or his role in those events.  Mothers, wives, daughters, prostitutes in this story are set pieces, not informants.

Escaping the maw of the gangster life pulls at edges of this story. Early group member bad kid Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) sees Frankie’s talent early, pushes him to perform and tempts him into trouble with drugs and molls and shady deals. His gambling debts and sanitized bad boy behavior are used as the dramatic glue that holds this story together, providing for this faux group history lesson a safe and external plot motivator to avoid the messier analyses of marital breakups and other equally motivational story telling devices, and any kind of backstory for the other “seasons” Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and the songwriter who comes in from another neighborhood, lanky Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

Performances are solid, yet at service of the tone and temperament of the direction and world created by screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Not much emotion, not much detail, just bookies and the threat of jail time and producers finding a sound and our boys occasionally performing. Emotions are not shared in the performances of the songs here, just occasionally in Valli reacting to his own music or events in his life. We don’t feel with him; we merely watch this character react to events.

One character alone provides a spark of life as the story proceeds. Christopher Walken, as local mobster Gyp DeCarlo, saves the day plotwise and emanates while he does so smirk, swagger, and a song and a dance (the later only in the viewer’s mind). His sentimental take as Frankie’s financial sugar daddy compels us, despite direction that distances us. For example, Eastwood trains a camera on Walken’s  face while he cries watching Frankie (long before the Seasons) perform. We in the audience are not moved by this musical performance. We are trained on the external.

In a movie plot framing cliché, similar to Chaplin’s final scene of the aged actor return to receive an honorary Oscar from the industry that rebuffed him decades before, the story culminates with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Honor decades after the early career focus of the story, with little shown us about the intervening years. We don’t deeply understand the road that these men took to reach that honor; Eastman’s direction and the story telling structure have created too much gauze (in focus, in cinematographic tone choices, in moody shadows) to see clearly. But a toe-tapping curtain call finale will send you out of the theatre with a few Four Seasons tunes stuck in your head – which is pleasure or pain depending upon your disposition.

© Martha Wade Steketee (July 1, 2014)

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