JERSEY BOYS (Three and a Half Stars)
U.S.: Clint Eastwood, 2014
I. The High Notes
Frankie Valli of Belleville, New Jersey had a voice that could melt a klieg light, hypnotize a hummingbird in full flight or just send shivers down your spine. You heard it — that inimitable nasal fire-alarm falsetto with its Jersey tinges and its wailing shrieks of passion and pseudo-teen horniness — and your own throat almost started aching in sympathy. “Big!” “Girls!” “Don’t!” “Cry!” Frankie screamed — as he and the other three Seasons (who made up the four Jersey Boys of the hit Broadway show now turned Hollywood musical) waved and doo-wopped and whirligigged and sang and danced like mad on stage and the audiences screamed back at them, and it all fused into a kind of mass pop hysteria built around stage performances of their early ‘60s mega-hits “Sherry,” “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like a Man” and “Dawn.”
Who were the The Four Seasons, anyway? If you’re a baby boomer, you probably remember. If you’re not, you’ve got the Broadway show and this new movie to tell you all about them — four Italian-American guys who could blast the hell out of a chorus, and go “Ooo-ooo-ooo” ‘til the speakers tipped over. They were pop music ‘s biggest group hit makers in the early ‘60s, until The Beatles came along with their “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah” and blew everyone else off the stage for the rest of the decade. They’re also the subjects of the smash stage hit “Jersey Boys,” which opened on Broadway in 2005 – and has never closed (so far) –and of the new movie version of that show, directed by Clint Eastwood with a simpatico that may surprise you.
Eastwood and The Four Seasons? Mr. Cool Jazz Solo Piano and the doo-wop boys? Well, stranger things have happened. (How about John Huston and “Annie?”) The movie of “Jersey Boys” takes the guys though four decades (the ‘50 s though the ‘90s), and, if it starts out like Mean Streets, it winds up almost like Dreamgirls or The Jolson Story. This big rock star bio-expose — part of a musical sub-genre that includes Ray (Ray Charles) or Walk the Line (Johnny Cash) — showcases sublime front man Frankie and his high-stepping backups (guitarist Tommy DeVito, bass player Nick Massi and keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio) as they sing on stage or in the studio or just hang out in the street.
Deftly mixing the songs with the back-story, Jersey Boys gives us the rock saga of the Seasons and their mob-tainted youth and their Top 40 rise and spectacular fall, split-up and reconnection — all in typical Hollywood rise-and-crash show biz terms, but with the blend of sentiment and savvy you’d expect from Eastwood. We see and hear the songs, either in the original versions or expertly copied by a cast that includes John Lloyd Young, Michael Lomenda and Erich Bergen (all of whom have played in the show on stage) and Vincent Piazza (who hasn‘t). And we also see and hear the backstage fireworks and the hedonistic high jinks, plunging toward an inevitable breakup and an equally inevitable teary reunion. It’s what you expect, but it’s also somewhat what happened, and it‘s definitely what most of us want to see.
The story is told in four parts, each by a different Season — and all four of the Jersey Boys look at the camera and talk to us, like Leonardo DiCaprio did as Jordan Belfort in The Wolf of Wall Street. Tommy DeVito, the rascal of the group (rousingly and acidly played by Piazza) tells us how he and Frankie (sweetly and sympathetically played by original Broadway Frankie and Tony-winner Young) and Nick (lovably, goofballishly played by Lomenda) all got together, and how Tommy he and Nick did a stretch in stir, and how they formed a gang not quite as inept as the Roman nincompoops of Monicelli’s Big Deal on Madonna Street. Tommy, a full-of-himself braggart and low-level Outfit hanger-on, also tells us how they started singing in bars for top Mafiosi like the elegant, weirdly sentimental Gyp DeCarlo (beautifully, eerily played by Christopher Walken), and how one day (Eureka!), they got tossed out of a bowling alley where they were supposed to gig, and the name of the bowling alley was The Four Seasons, and yeah, that’s where they got the name. (And I bet you thought one of these guys was a Vivaldi nut.)
Bob Gaudio by now takes the story, then Frankie, then Nick. (Somebody in the original play was probably thinking of Rashomon‘s four-part flashback structure, even though that Japanese classic has four totally different versions of the same story — but then again we all know how much Clint loves Akira Kurosawa.). Anyway, thanks to Tommy’s pal Joey Pesci (Yeah, that Joe Pesci) (See below), Frankie, Tommy and Nick hook up with Gaudio, the teen genius who gave the world (at age 15) the Royal Teens’ maddeningly banal and catchy juke box hit “Short Shorts” (one of those songs that sticks in your head even though you damn well don’t want it to) and he heard Frankie‘s high notes, and decided that was the voice he wanted to sing his songs. So, now they’re a band, and we rise with them, fall with them, endure conflict and bad marriages (Frankie’s wife Mary is superbly, if too briefly, played by Renee Marino) and tragedy, and we get redeemed with them, and if you can’t figure out what’s going to happen when they’re all inducted into the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame together, you‘re losing it, my friend. All this may make the movie sound a little silly and corny, but sometimes life is silly and corny. At any rate, the movie works, even if the stage show may have worked better.
II. The Bridge
Now, let me confess something. I never liked the Four Seasons much back in their day, and I didn’t expect to like this movie. I don’t like most falsetto (or castrati) singing, even with a phenomenal set of pipes like Valli’s, and that means I didn’t, at the time, much like “Sherry“ and all the others. There was an East Coast Italian-American early ‘60s doowop group that I did enjoy a lot, and that was Dion and the Belmonts, later just Dion (Di Mucci), the high tenor virtuoso of the mournful “Teenager in Love” and “Born to Cry” and “Lovers Who Wander” and “The Wanderer” and Dion’s masterpiece, the savage, heart-sick, scream-the-house-down lament “Run-Around Sue” (“Hurt! Hurt! Bom-de-hurty-hurty…Hurt! Hurt!“). But I liked Eastwood’s movie, and I also liked the show itself — the book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who both also wrote the screenplay) and the songs mostly by Gaudio and Bob Crewe (their swishily energetic producer, played here con brio by Mike Doyle). And that must mean that, on some unpredictable (for me at least ) level, I finally like The Four Seasons. Believe me, I never thought I’d see the day.
Let me confess something else. I’ve never seen one of the Des McAnuff stage versions of “Jersey Boys” that packed them in all over the world, but I’m perfectly willing to believe that it was better in many ways than the movie. And yet I still like the picture, even though some (not all) of my colleagues apparently think Eastwood’s direction here is more like an empty chair on a Republican stage than anything you‘d get from Bob Fosse or Richard Lester in their prime. McAnuff is said to have given the play a pace and a drive like Hell in third gear, and I’m sure that his attack was more exciting than the calm, deliberate, measured way Eastwood (as usual) chooses to tell the story (or stories) here. But there’s a justification for Clint’s approach, and for the way he tries to keep everything rolling along in life’s rhythms. We watch the picture and we don’t feel we’re being oversold. We’re eased into this world of pop, and even though it’s familiar, it means something to us.
We mentioned Eastwood‘s fealty to his scripts — he’s known as a director who shoots what the writer wrote and doesn’t try to goose things up — and “Jersey Boys” has a good one. The movie is well-written, well-acted, well-directed, a solid job all around. In this case, Eastwood went back to Brickman and Elice’s first script (choosing it over some rewrites written since), and shot it straight up. Brickman, of course, was Woody Allen’s writing partner on Sleeper, Annie Hall and Manhattan — and this rock n’ roll epic is probably his best work since then. So Clint preserved that first script’s special qualities, its canny blend of show biz cynicism and deeper humanity, and he filmed it simply and with admirable clarity — using his usual production team (cinematographer Tom Stern, production designer James J. Murakami and editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach) and getting that moody, half-sad, jazzy, sinewy look and feel he likes so much. Like a lot of other critics, I wondered what attracted him to this material, but his attraction to it makes more sense after you see the film. This story may mean a lot more to him than we realize.
III. The Horns Come in
The real-life Four Seasons, like the young Eastwood as Rowdy Yates on “Rawhide” (a character whom he puckishly shows on a TV) — were young men in a highly competitive, sometimes damaging industry who suddenly got very popular and very rich after years of not-quite success, and had to cope with all the hassles of world fame. (I know, I know: if they gave you the fame, you‘ll be happy to cope. Yeah. All of us.) But show biz has eaten alive a lot of players and singers and dancers and cowboys, and it still does and still will, and Jersey Boys — which starts in the key of Scorsese, shows us a little Billy Wilder (another TV with Kirk Douglas dissing Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole, which supposedly inspired “Big Girls Don‘t Cry“), and then slides into Michael Curtiz for the finish — gives us the lowdown: the stage magic that goes sour, the women and friends that are abused, the money that vanishes. Anyway, just because some of it seems like a cliché, doesn’t mean a lot of it doesn’t ring true.
Many movie musicals, including some of the great ones, make the songs and the big numbers the raison d’etre of the whole show. There are some cinematic coups here — most obviously, the quick moving shot up the outside wall of the legendary Brill Building, with song-peddlers peddling behind the windows on every floor. But Eastwood seems to be just as much or more interested in the dramatic scenes, and he doesn’t try to jazz up the songs the way a Fosse or a Rob Marshall might. He just plays the Four Seasons numbers (and some others) as another part of life, of the story, of how it happened — until the movie climaxes and the credits roll, and Eastwood and his very gifted company finally give us a big super-choreographed number, staged to the later Four Seasons hit, “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” — and this one is a killer. Under the end-titles, the picture brings back the whole ensemble and turns them loose and lets it rip. It’s a terrific sequence, even if they don’t give the great Chris Walken enough (or really any) dancing room. (Walken, a fantastic hoofer, still scores with a few seconds of preoccupied-looking, desultory dips.)
IV. The Chorus
One of the best things about Eastwood’s Jersey Boys is the showcase it gives the four young actors who play the Four Seasons: Lloyd, Piazza, Bergen and Lomenda. Each of them nails his part, totally, from the songs to the back-story and back again. But they also complement each other beautifully — Piazza with his dark, funny portrait of the brash but beguilingly edgy Tommy DeVito; Young as Frankie, with his likable naiveté and that sweet, pure voice; Bergen with his silky arrogance, his taste for T.S. Eliot, and his (somewhat justifiable) conceit; and Lomenda, another scene-stealer with great whirling-doofus stage moves — a magnetic performer even if, as Nick says, it’s a four man group, and he’s Ringo. (Tommy DeVito, by the way, which is the name of the sociopathic killer Joe Pesci played in Goodfellas, is also the name of the guitarist for the Seasons — and, ironically, the real-life Joey Pesci, played by the uncanny Pesci look-and-act-alike Joseph Russo, is also part of Jersey Boys. He introduces them to Gaudio, manages a little, and is eventually Tommy’s post-Seasons employer. And oh yeah, later on he met Scorsese and won an Oscar, right around the year the Four Seasons were named to the Rock ’n Roll Hall of Fame. So I‘ve got just one thing to say about life and art and movies and all that jazz: “You think I‘m funny?”)
The picture’s four leads, or at least three of them, probably know the show better than their director by now, and Eastwood gives them plenty of room to shine. He obviously likes the story, likes its slant on the bumps and jags of the entertainment industry (rock n’ roll as well as movies), and he helps tell that story with a depth and an empathy that belie his 84 years and his sometimes conservative politics, and the automatic stature that his Oscars have rightly conferred on him. This is a movie that, like Eastwood’s Bronco Billy and Honkytonk Man and Bird, shows the darker or crazier side of show biz and music, makes us feel the way it feels for the performers and musicians, puts us on stage and upfront. If nothing else, it’s fun to see a Clint Eastwood movie where somebody uses the term “objective-correlative.” And where somebody else sings falsetto without a gun pointed at them.
So I was wrong. The Four Seasons really could sing up a storm. Capeesh? I still prefer “Run Around Sue,” or even “Donna the Prima Donna.“ Jersey Boys could have been better, but you can say that about almost any movie — except Citizen Kane, Seven Samurai, The Rules of the Game, Persona, Lawrence of Arabia, Stagecoach, Vertigo, Goodfellas, Singin’ in the Rain, and oh, maybe two dozen or so others. Meanwhile, if Jersey Boys is not a great movie — and it’s not — it’s sure as hell a good one.
Anyway, there’s a good reason why there are so many movies about top-notch, well loved show biz icons who lead messed up or nearly ruined lives and then, by God, come back. Except in certain extreme cases, most of us will always want to see that last big redemptive number. Most of us will want to hear one more chorus, applaud one more time, get one more glimpse of that stairway to so-called heaven. Most of us will always be rooting for them. And let me confess something: I am too.