Saturday, June 28, 2014

Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood, 2014)

As they approach their final statement, venerable auteurs tend to reflect upon the import of their worldviews if not of cinema itself. So a new Clint Eastwood film, for instance, presents itself as an opportunity to traipse through a lifetime of fusing sound and image. Changeling took time out to honor the hypnotic power of movies while White Hunter, Black Heart, Blood Work, Gran Torino, etc. tried to locate the elasticity in his western/crime thriller personae. And now Jersey Boys continues this project by pulling his tough guy legacy even further out of shape.

At first blush, Eastwood seems one of the least likely directors to undertake the film adaptation of the Broadway hit chronicling the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Despite an astute musical ear, nothing in Eastwood's oeuvre (especially the sorry roadshow flop Paint Your Wagon) suggested an ear for musicals (or even musical biopics). But Valli's falsetto shook up the foundations of Italian-American machismo and provides Eastwood with yet another conduit for navigating the edges of masculinity. Delivered in that helium-cured voice, "Walk Like a Man" offered far more possibilities for persona-shaping than mere advice from a father to his son to hang tough.

Eastwood never shies away from this aspect of their music, particularly in his attention to the contributions of queer producer-writer Bob Crewe. Jersey Boys suggests that it was Crewe's camp lust for movies that influenced the creation of "Big Girls Don't Cry." He's watching Ace in the Hole (aka The Big Carnival, Billy Wilder, 1951) with the Seasons at one point and mouths every word of the scene when Jan Sterling gets slapped. When asked why she doesn't cry, Crewe responds with the title of their next number one hit. Bob Gaudio, who co-wrote "Big Girls Don't Cry," maintains that he discovered the line in Tennessee's Partner (1955) while Crewe claims, more plausibly, that he heard it in Slightly Scarlet (1956, both directed by Allan Dwan, curiously). Nevertheless, the exchange acknowledges the queer architectonics behind so much 1960s pop. Too bad he didn't include a scene where Crewe's latest boytoy inspires him to write "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."

Eastwood seems less interested in hitting the biographical highlights than he is fashioning a sort of Wikipedia article with the direct addresses to the camera from various band members serving as links. Yes, it's that Joe Pesci, the actor, who introduced Gaudio to the group. And watch as he references his famous "How am I funny?" Goodfellas harangue in one scene.  No, we really didn't know much about homosexuality back then. "This was 1959; people thought Liberace was just theatrical." And look - there's Clint Eastwood on a TV screen. To a certain extent, all biopics function in this manner. But Jersey Boys feels eminently clickable. You just want to reach out and press on any character's face to find out that, sheesh, Frankie Valli and/or the Four Seasons had more hits than you remembered. It's an entirely appropriate biopic for 2014 and for a director actively shaping his legacy.

But Jersey Boys works most of all because it doesn't take much for a musical to least for music lovers. For the most part, Eastwood allows the songs to play out in their entirety which actually makes the 134 minutes move briskly. The actors, recorded live, perform worthy approximations of the hits and the Seasons' masterpiece "Sherry" plays out in its original form as the cast faux-freeze-frames after the requisite spontaneous outburst of song number at the end of the film. Eastwood has been criticized for lacking the flash necessary to film a musical. But as the Astaire-Rogers musicals have taught us, the music and the performers provide the flash. The director just needs to record it and Eastwood's sober approach here suits the subject perfectly.


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