Sunday, July 13, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood                                  Writer: Billy Ray
Film Score: Matt McGuire                               Cinematography: Tom Stern
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Christopher Walken

I can remember reading the autobiography of George Martin, the producer of The Beatles, and his horror at the idea of Robert Stigwood’s production of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. He was outraged that someone would try to emulate The Beatles by re-recording some of their classic songs, and refused to have any part of it when approached by Stigwood. But Martin’s wife told him he should reconsider. She said that it would be horrible no matter who did the production, but if he worked on it himself it would be as good as it could possibly be. That was good enough for Martin. Though not exactly the same thing, I would venture to say that Jersey Boys is as good as it can be because of the participation of Clint Eastwood as director. Coming, as it did, from a popular hit Broadway musical, I had the unfortunate expectation that if it ever made its way to the screen it would wind up as something on the order of John Waters’ Hairspray. But Eastwood’s direction obviously allayed those fears, though he could only do so much with the film given the source material.

The film is, of course, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It begins with John Lloyd Young as the teenage Valli, and his best friend Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, a mob gofer for Christopher Walken, a New Jersey gang leader. Piazza gets Young involved in break-ins and robberies, but because Walken loves Young’s voice it keeps him out of juvenile detention. Piazza has a band and eventually Young becomes the lead singer. At the same time he gets married to Renée Marino and they start having kids. The bass player in the band is Michael Lomenda, but the group has no original songs. Enter bowling pinsetter Joseph Russo as none other than Joe Pesci. He knows singer songwriter Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio who is the final piece of the puzzle. As Bergen begins writing hits with producer Mike Doyle as Bob Crewe, the group begins their ascent up the charts, with one hit after another. But while you can take the boy out of the mob, you can’t take the mob out of the boy. Piazza can’t help himself and winds up embezzling funds from the group to the tune of over a half a million dollars. And at the same time the group is falling apart, so is Young’s marriage.

While Clint Eastwood may seem like an unlikely choice for the director of a musical biopic, he is one of the more musical directors in the business. He plays jazz piano and also directed the story of Charlie Parker, Bird. His approach to the diegetic music in each film is also unique, and very dependent upon the subject matter. In Bird, film score composer and jazz great Lennie Niehaus took the original Parker records into the studio, pulled off Parker’s saxophone lines, and had jazz musicians of the day provide a new backing. But because this film had been, and still is, a hit Broadway show, the lead actors were chosen by Eastwood himself from the various companies still performing around the country, and the cast did much of the singing live as they were being filmed. The confidence of the actors with the material is undeniable, and that is certainly a result of their extensive stage experience with the play. While Young and Piazza are very good as the two leads, the surprise of the film for me is Michael Lomenda who is tremendous. He also has one of the best lines in the movie. When explaining to the camera why he quit the group he says, “But if there’s four guys, and you’re Ringo . . . Better I should spend some time with my kids.”

Eastwood and his production designer, James J. Murakami, who has worked with the director since 1992 on Unforgiven, create very stylistic impressions of the past, bordering on artificial, but it works. The biggest criticism is the source material itself. The Four Seasons were really America’s answer to The Beatles and, along with The Beach Boys, provided the only real original singing and songwriting alternative to the Fab Four. As such, one would hope for a more reverent and realistic look at the group, but that’s not what’s going on here. The film wears its stage beginnings on its sleeve, which does have its charms but the music tends to take a back seat to the rest of the drama. The other aspect of the play that rears its head is the breaking down of the fourth wall, with characters speaking directly into the camera. That probably works much better on stage than in the film. Don’t expect the sound of the real Valli, either, because you’ll hear nothing like him in these cover versions no matter how much you squint your ears. As I said at the beginning, however, as bad as these flaws are, with Eastwood behind the camera it’s probably as good as this story can possibly be in making the move to the big screen. Jersey Boys is what it is, a Broadway play adapted for the screen, but as the only biopic about one of the greatest rock and roll groups of all time, it will definitely have a place in my collection.

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