CLINT EASTWOOD FAVORS WORDS AND MOTION WITHOUT SACRIFICING THE MUSIC
By T.T. Stern-Enzi
Rating: PG-13; Grade: B
Clint Eastwood, as both an actor and a director, has a no-nonsense approach that has served him well over the course of his career. He refuses to clutter up a performance with tics and affected mannerisms; his method is more common sense, just being content to live in the moment and express what comes to the fore. He has commanded the screen as a star, but never been recognized for technical flourishes. More than any other performer of the last 40 years, Eastwood, the man, feels to an audience like a direct extension of the characters we’ve seen him play. Go ahead, readers, try arguing that point. I dare you.
And so, it seems, the same could be said for the man behind the camera, although he has opened himself up a bit more, in intriguing ways. With “Bird,” he pulled back the curtain on his established affinity for music, especially jazz, which allowed us to feel his love for quiet, improvisational moments. Too often, it is easy to fall back on the stories of Eastwood’s certain hand, guiding productions from start to finish, usually under time and budget constraints. To focus on that aspect alone slights a process that never misses the appropriate nuances and beats. Follow the line of heartbreak from Forest Whitaker’s tragic performance as Charlie Parker in “Bird” through to the lovely exchanges between Eastwood opposite either Hilary Swank or Morgan Freeman in “Million Dollar Baby” and remember – that’s Dirty Harry shooting all of those scenes.
Even with that knowledge, it still comes as a surprise to hear Eastwood decided to tackle a big screen adaptation of the Broadway hit Jersey Boys. Again, who would have guessed Eastwood would be interested in the story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, a Tony Award winner from the Broadway production) and the Four Seasons? The broad showstoppers and that big voice of Valli’s wouldn’t seem to fit in the toned-down snapshot portraits Eastwood prefers, but, on some elemental level, that is exactly what is necessary to translate a stage musical to the medium of film.
It turns out there’s also a like-mindedness, a streak of loyalty and determination that drives Valli and Eastwood. “Jersey Boys” is, first and foremost, the story of four guys – Valli, would-be leader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), writer-producer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), and the low-register of Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) – who made it big, despite the odds stacked against them. They were wrong-side-of-the-track guys, low-level criminal types under the protection of a Mafioso named Gyp (a wonderfully cast Christopher Walken, who is equal parts tough and tender in every moment), ill-equipped for the bright lights, the money and everything else that came with the life.
Yet, their gift, Valli’s otherworldly falsetto and those songs, couldn’t be denied, and Valli proves as committed to the music as he is to the guys, at the expense of everything else. Young, under Eastwood’s direction, narrows things down, honing in on the resolve that will carry Valli through all of the highs and lows. He understands he doesn’t have to project to the back of the theater. What he gives us is a one-note performance, but that note is clear, clean and true.
Most of the narrative is a retelling of highlights with musical renditions given to us in full – a smart decision in this day and age of rapid-fire editing and standard movie montages. Eastwood’s plainspoken approach removes the artifice of characters directly addressing the audience or using song snippets to foreshadow movements to come. Without the movie-musical bombast, “Jersey Boys” settles comfortably into the routine biopic structure, but like any good pop song, it gets in your head.