Wednesday, June 18, 2014

'Jersey Boys' (2014) directed by Clint Eastwood

When I sat down to watch Jersey Boys I couldn't have given less of a toss about Frankie Valli or The Four Seasons.  134 minutes later I still didn't.  It's not that I don't like the music, but I find it hard to get passionate about middle-of-the-road 60s pop sung by a man who sounds like he's got his balls caught in a vice.  So this music biopic sinks or swim on its story and characters, with mixed results.  

Based on the hit musical, Jersey Boys on screen eschews most of the conventions of a the stage version, opting instead for treating the story a straight music biopic.  Fortunately the life of Frankie Valli is interesting enough in its own right, even disregarding the music.  This is a solidly blue collar examination of the music industry - with the emphasis on industry. Valli and his bandmates Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Bob Gaudio are workmen rather than artists, treating the production of pop music more as a professional craft rather than as any kind of higher calling.  

The vast majority of music biopics deify their subjects as enigmatic and individualistic geniuses; a tactic that allows us to admire them from afar and forgive them when they screw up.  Jersey Boys is a bit different: Frankie Valli and his bandmates are emphatically not  geniuses.  Instead they're guys with decent musicianship who've concluded that their best chance of a comfortable life is to play some songs, get paid and go home at the end of the day.

Taking place largely chronologically, we follow The Four Seasons from their humble beginnings as neighbourhood kids on the humdrum streets of New Jersey, through their gradual ascent to stardom, to the top of the pop charts and finally through their acrimonious separation.  There's more than a dab of the mob film in the mix too, and to my eyes it looks as if Eastwood watched Scorsese's Goodfellas a bunch of times in preparation.  Both films share a grubby, pop-inflected rags to riches optimism, that becoming successful means coming under more pressure and both come to the conclusion that their working class heroes are ultimately pawns in someone else's game.

Also it's a bit like That Thing You Do, which I've always thought was a tad underrated.
There aren't many directors with more of safe hand on the tiller than Eastwood, and he brings in the movie with a minimum of fuss and a professional straightforwardness.  There's very little in the way of stylistic tics or visual frippery here, just utterly competent film-making.  The closest we get to experimental are the character's frequent breaking of the fourth wall to directly narrate what's going on to the audience, Wayne's World style.  At its most audacious (which isn't saying very much), Eastwood has his characters speak to the camera mid-song so, for example we get the bass player explaining his precise grievances with the band mid-performance on the Ed Sullivan Show.

It's a similar story performancewise.  John Lloyd Young gives what is probably an accurate portrayal of Valli (though admittedly I have no idea how the real Valli behaves), managing to navigate between naivety and cynicism with as little fuss as possible, though he does pull off the on stage persona.  Slightly more interesting is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, whose maniacally egotistic behaviour instigates most of the drama in the film.  He takes us from loveable rogue, through tolerable scumbag and finally to pathetic moron in a nicely layered performance.  There are precious few heavyweights backing up this relatively inexperienced cast though, though Christopher Walken makes a game effort as a chilled out New Jersey mobster, he's not really given a lot to do.

That's Joseph Russo as Joe Pesci on the left.  Yes, that Joe Pesci.
It's all a bit perfunctory to be honest, a music biopic paint-by-numbers.  They go through all the old cliches of the genre; but what was exhilarating in films like Walk the Line is sadly lacking here, primarily due to a rather charisma-free protagonist in Valli and some less than heartfelt music.  They even, repeatedly, do the one creaky old musobio cliche I hate the most.  Paraphrasing; someone says offhandedly "Hey Frankie, you gotta walk like a man!". Cut to Frankie staring off into the middle distance with an inspired look in his eye. Cut to the band playing the song "Walk Like a Man" on TV.  Cut to a man in a suit handing Frankie a gold record; "You gotta 'nother hit Frankie!".  This is tired old bullshit.

I guess the word I'm searching for is mediocre.  Coming from a director with a pedigree as strong as Eastwood this is a disappointment.  As someone utterly neutral on the music I was expecting the film to explain why it's so great (like Walk the Line did), but Jersey Boys never comes close.  In fact, the film arguably treats being a musician and making music as a grinding, joy-free chore.  This makes it difficult to care, either about the characters or the music.  

Jersey Boys isn't a bad film by any means, but it's difficult to gauge any reason to actually watch it save for a pre-existing love of Frankie Valli.  It's just sort of there. Maybe the musical is better.


Jersey Boys is released June 20th

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