Frankie Goes To Eastwood
Hello, and welcome to another review sponsored by the 'There's Pretty Much Sod-All Else On This Week' Corporation, this time of Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys. I have to confess that much as I admire and enjoy Clint the Icon, I haven't felt obliged to see any of his films as a director in recent years: the last one I saw was Flags of Our Fathers (not even knowing it was one of his, to be honest). The great British public seem to share my feelings, for once: I had the place pretty much to myself for the matinee I attended. Perhaps expectations for this film are unusually low, anyway – you would expect an adaptation of a hit musical from a feted director like Clint to come out around Christmas time, ahead of the awards season, rather than during a lull in blockbuster time.
Jersey Boys is not about competitive cyclists or the travails of the knitwear industry, but then you probably knew that. It is another entry in the reliable old pop culture biopic genre, devoted on this occasion to Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The film opens in 1951 by introducing Valli (John Lloyd Young), a naive young trainee barber with an astonishing falsetto voice, and his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a wiseguy hustler. Both of them enjoy the patronage of underworld figure Gyp DeCarlo (a relatively restrained Christopher Walken). Along with a few friends, the guy are trying to carve out a musical career in between bouts of not especially petty crime, but it's fair to say these two careers do not dovetail especially well – it's hard to plan a concert schedule when various band members keep going to prison.
However, Valli and DeVito, along with their friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), eventually hook up with precociously talented musician and composer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and the stage is set for the kind of long slog that usually presages overnight stardom. A string of hits like Sherry, Walk Like A Man, and Big Girls Don't Cry follows, but – as ever – success brings its own problems, with creative, personal, and financial differences eventually threatening to destroy the lives of the quartet.
So, there's a sense in which this is a story which you have probably seen before a number of times – the arc of the plot is the same, just the names and the songs change. Certainly, in the UK at least, the songs are rather more familiar than the names: we're talking about a group which was really at its peak nearly half a century ago. Quartets of clean-cut young men in matching bow ties and suede cardigans singing close harmonies in surprisingly high voices is not a major element of the modern youth music scene, after all, and I do wonder slightly who the intended audience for this film really is. People who remember the Four Seasons from their heyday are likely to be – how can I put this? – knocking on a bit, and unlikely to be enthused by the heavy concentration of F-bombs in the dialogue of this movie. On the other hand, people going to see this movie simply because they enjoyed the stage show may well be disappointed too, because I suspect they are rather different beasts.
Jersey Boys the stage show is a cousin to the jukebox musical, that odd beast where existing pop songs from a popular artist or group are repurposed to serve a (usually highly contrived) narrative – the index case being, I suppose, Mamma Mia!. This movie isn't like that at all: it is, for want of a better word, a diegetic musical, where practically the only songs and dancing in it occur when the Four Seasons are actually performing on stage. This means the first act of the movie is much more in the vein of Goodfellas than anything else, set in a highly-clannish Italian-American community in the mid 50s, and realised in a very orthodox way.
Virtually the film's only traditional musical-style number – complete with people singing and dancing in the street, with large numbers of backing dancers and an invisible orchestra – comes during the closing credits, and it was for me the most uplifting and energising part of the whole movie. The Four Seasons' songs are such pure and joyous pop that I'm not sure they're best served by being embedded in a fairly gritty mob-related drama, nor indeed vice versa. Some of the innocent pleasure of the non-diegetic musical really might have helped, but it would have meant rethinking the whole tone of the enterprise.
Then again, maybe Clint just didn't want to do a traditional musical – there are certainly fleeting moments here where it seems as if he's threatening to parody the bio-pic genre. 'What are we going to call ourselves?' cry the boys, and, literally, just at that moment a huge neon sign lights up in front of them with THE FOUR SEASONS written on it. A moment where Gaudio, struggling for a title for his new song, hears their producer observing that 'big girls don't cry', strikes a similar note. At times you're not quite sure how to take this movie – the presence in it of Joe Pesci (not as an actor, but as an actual character) just adds to the sense of things being oddly out of whack.
On the other hand, most of the time this is fairly dramatic stuff, played in a down-to-earth manner. Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio are credited as executive producers, which doubtless explains why they are presentedly slightly more favourably than the other two Seasons, but no one gets entirely crucified, not even the one who got the whole band in hock to the mob. Walken is the only established star in the movie (well, Clint sneaks himself a cameo courtesy of a clip from Rawhide which the boys watch on TV), but the guys playing the band do solid work (as the title suggests, this is very much a boys' movie, women being relegated to the roles of girlfriends and mothers and wives).
In the end, though, Jersey Boys is a workmanlike movie rather than anything special, and that's mainly down to the inconsistency of tone it has – is it a slice-of-life drama from the mean streets of 50s Jersey, or a fabulous non-naturalistic piece of 60s pop froth? The film pendulums back and forth between the two, and the broad sweep of the main plot really doesn't have very much original going on in it. Not actually a bad movie, but a very long way from being essential – obviously the soundtrack is fantastic, though.