Jersey Boys brushes off the glitter of the typical musical and gives us a calming and languid experience that never soars, but gently entertains nonetheless.
Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, based on the hit Broadway musical biography of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, is gently humorous, comforting, relaxing, and languid. It feels old fashioned and wholly sedate. Some may feel this is the wrong approach for a musical, which in the modern idiom is a genre that is haphazardly flung upon a screen frozen in full-tilt glitz mode, but the mellower ethos kind of works. Eastwood, who turned 84 this year, has always been a homey and old-fashioned director, shooting his films in halcyon soft-focus and desaturated colors. He allows his films to unfold and crest in their own damn time, making for a meandering but occasionally rewarding experience. Even within a scene, characters tend to talk a little more slowly than in your average Hollywood feature film.
Eastwood’s relaxed pace may seem antithetical to the notion of a musical, which typically gets its power from open displays of blasting theatrical energy; in live theater, actors have to literally play to the back of a room. Here, he’s not being demonstrative or showy until a final credits dance number – the only one in the film – preferring to sit back and just enjoy the music. This is the film version of sitting back in your favorite chair and putting on your favorite old record.
And while the slowed pace and quietude of Jersey Boys eventually stretches it into perhaps too long a nostalgic stroll, isn’t that how we view music from the era of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons? I know them as a kid from listening to Oldies stations, and liked the corny earnestness of music from that period. Valli’s long-ranged, high-pitched vocals were a weird midpoint between the plaintive wails of the crooner era and the lustful gasps of the more hard-edged early rock ‘n’ roll. It feels innocent when compared to later music. Eastwood, while peppering his film with plenty of foul-mouthed criminal Jersey mooks and horny guidos (the aggressively classless Jersey Shore types began their evolution here), has made a film with an adult element of class.
Jersey Boys traces the history of The Four Seasons from the time when Valli (John Lloyd Young, doing a reasonable imitation) was a 16-year-old, the group’s leader, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) was a frequent jailbird I-talian punk, Nick (Michael Lomenda) was a spirited musician but admitted hanger-on, and their eventual songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) was seen as an interloper. Oh yes, and it was actor Joe Pesci (Jospeh Russo) who kind of introduced the team. The story of The Four Seasons is typical of most musical biopics: The team-ups, the arguments, the hits, the excess, the fatal flaw (usually either drugs, money, or womanizing; here it’s money), the downfall, the redemption, the final reunion.
A fun detail about this particular story: Tommy DeVito was in debt to the mob (represented by Christopher Walken), and it was Valli who bailed him out. They were alienated as a result. A personal detail that I must share: Valli’s eventual comeback came in 1967 in the form of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” I loathe that particular song. I happen to love The Four Seasons’ other hits, “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry.”
The tagline of the film is “Everyone remembers it how they need to.” For a wholly nostalgic musical film adapted from a popular jukebox musical, Eastwood seems like a good choice. He didn’t nail the history exactly right, didn’t really try to explain to audiences the musical importance of The Four Seasons, nor did he infuse Jersey Boys with any sort of brightness or energy. The muted quietude in a musical film will frustrate many people, and it is, overall, a small detriment. But for a film that is about nostalgia, Jersey Boys manages to capture not the actual time and place, but the way we seem to feel about it.