Thursday, July 3, 2014

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

Directed by Clint Eastwood. 2014.

Every genre has a natural shape, and it doesn't do the critic or audience any good to beat a movie over the head for conforming to the standard. From that standard you can surely end up with a paint-by-numbers movie, lazily hitting stock elements, but a competent, confident genre pic is a comforting pleasure. The genre of band origins is simply that of growth, followed by maturity and the inevitable decline, and with Jersey Boys Clint Eastwood hits the marks with spirit and just enough variation to bring off the show.

The opening act centers around the transformation of Newark, New Jersey's Francesco Castelluccio from a good-natured rascal with a fine voice into the front man of The Four Seasons. This is pretty standard stuff–escaping a life of petty crime, the first performance with a band, marriage–but Eastwood really sells an air of innocence with this opening. The boys are fresh-faced and fall for whatever plan their street-smart leader Tommy DeVito concocts. We see that Frankie has talent, but it's wasted on songs which don't play to his special sound. Eastwood is generous with the music here, and the degree to which Valli's sound exceeds his material really perks our desire to see him hit it big. The trio hustles gigs, getting bumped around as trios fall out of style and club owners find out about their criminal records. After Frankie gets some pointed advice from a local pistol whom he marries, the trio stumbles on their saving grace: a writer who can help Frankie shine. After some heated debate between Frankie and his big brother Tommy, the Bronx-born and Bergenfield-raised Bob Gaudio hands Frankie a song. With a little inspiration for their name and Frankie's insistence on pitching the group to producers in New York, The Four Seasons is born.

Act II proceeds with their struggle to get recorded, and Eastwood modulates his trick from Act I, having Frankie surpass his material, to launch the band. Here we see the boys relegated to background singing slowly overshadow the soloists until a moment of inspiration on the bus gives Gaudio the song that'll break waves: Sherry. With success after success after their American Bandstand appearance and with so little conflict, I was worried the movie would bottom out. Eastwood, however, closes out Act II with a flashback that shows Tommy borrowing mob money to finance the band's bookings. This is a tack which might have felt cheap or added-on, but instead it recasts the whole act and introduces a problem which had been present but out of sight all along, that beside the boorishness, flimflamming, and excessive sociability which we overlooked on account of his charm, Tommy's been bungling the books and swindling Frankie, Bob, and Nick.

The conclusion catalogs the band's breakup and the breakup of Frankie's marriage, and while we expect some melodrama we don't get it. Frankie takes on the band's debt and takes his personal struggles on the cuff, realizing what he owes to Tommy and his family. When Frankie comes into his own to stand up to Tommy for himself and the band, keeping his cool, loyalty, and sense of obligation, we feel it as a personal triumph for him. Shining in the background throughout is Bob Gaudio, who continues not only to produce hit after hit for Frankie, but to evolve his own musical style. It is Gaudio's music which ultimately holds both the band and Jersey Boys together, giving the boys a vehicle for success and the movie shape and punctuation.

Jersey Boys isn't just three big acts clunking together, though, and there's enriching detail. The depiction of Italian American's may be stereotypically mobbed-up, but from the accents to the framed picture of the pope to the most accurate New York-New Jersey style cursing I've heard in a movie, the scene seems about right. (There was a cheap shot of a nun in her habit burping after imbibing the sacramental wine after hours, though, because I guess we had to remember that nuns are people too during Jersey Boys.) The sets are dressed for the time but the colors and look are pretty flat. We don't get that distracting gloss and pop which screams period piece! over and over. Christopher Walken adds some restrained humor as Gyp DeCarlo, a local mafioso who looks out for Frankie and Mike Doyle brings some spice as their snippy producer Bob Crewe who sent them to the big leagues.

Of course the temptation for a biopic or any movie based on a true story is follow chronologically to the end, but Eastwood makes two changes, both prudent and clever. The first is to eschew those dreary closing captions which tell us where everyone ended up and to put those stories into the mouths of the characters as they address the audience. This closes the gap between past and present and makes us feel more intimate with the characters that we are soon to leave behind. Second, as the aged and reconciled boys finish their set at their 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, they spin around to reveal their younger selves. We see them years ago singing Sherry for the first time under the Newark streetlight when there was just the boys and the music. When they break out into December, 1963 and swaggering down the street they're joined by everyone they met on their musical journey, we're taken to the beginning. The perfect note on which to end, this semi-fantastical scene is a vivid memory that takes us back to a special time as we'd like to remember it: full of joy, filled with friends, and set to our favorite music.

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