There is no denying Clint Eastwood's prolific directorial career. He has managed to make one of the greatest westerns with "Unforgiven," he has given us a sports film that is as contemplative as it is physical brutal with "Million Dollar Baby," and he has surprised us with unique nuance in a worn-out war genre with "Letters From Iwo Jima," (a film I consider to be one of the most underrated in the past twenty years). One reason he will always be intriguing is his knack to linger on ambiguous concepts and feelings. Even the heavily criticized film, "Hereafter," features many moments of this lingering contemplation that can be seen in many of his other works. That is why the violence is sparse in "Unforgiven" or the last act of "Million Dollar Baby" plays out really just in a hospital room. These moments and the spaces they occupy allow the viewer to really absorb what is transpiring and to apply our feelings as such. It is involving filmmaking.
Eastwood's most recent film, "Jersey Boys," is inherently problematic because it falls in the very narrow kingdom of conventional music biopics (even though it is not necessarily a biopic about one particular person). Whereas Eastwood seem to have more freedom with war films, westerns, and the sports films, the music biopic is arguably the most stringent. What is produced is solid filmmaking but filmmaking that seems to always miss the chance of emotional exploration due to the compromising, but reasonable, narrative construction. There are glimpses of exploration, but, alas, the story must propel us tothe next stage of the band's life like all of these films do.
"Jersey Boys" still has an intriguing storytelling formula that combines the continuous meshing of multiple stories of the band members while providing personal commentary by these band members. The film's first shot introduces us to Tommy DeVito (played with classic Italian gusto by Vincent Piazza) as he lays it out there that the Four Seasons would not have had their success if it wasn't for him. The story would unfold in this fashion, with the fourth wall being totally demolished mostly by Tommy, bassist and bass singer Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and the hits writer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) which work and adds color to an otherwise bland illustration of characters that seem forcibly placed in a small cookie cutter. Frank Valli (played with strange altruism but with charming care by John Lloyd Young) really becomes the focal point after the group's breakup.
The evolution of the band is actually laid out pretty well, from the modest upbringing in Belleville, New Jersey through the musical production development and into their limelight all the way into their dissolution which, to quote T.S. Eliot (Bob quotes him in the film, mind you), kind of ends not in a bang but in a whimper. The most effective facet of this layout is not necessarily the band's mentality. Like Chris Cabin of Slant Magazine explains, "What [Eastwood] eloquently conveys throughout Jersey Boys is the sense of the work that goes into entertainment, the unglamorous and often not very fun concessions that are made in the name of having both a modicum of artistic freedom and a regular paycheck." Indeed, later in the film, when Frankie and Bob cultivate the late mega-hit 'Can't Take My Eyes Off of You,' one of the producers refer to the song along the lines of being too artsy, something curious and bewildering as we watch in our day. Nevertheless, this ambitious depiction of a meticulous process worked but ultimately left a narrative void that could have been filled with more emphasis on the creative and business process that took place.
But the narrative construction was a compromise. For all the commentary by each of the band members you lose time given to more specific moments of each of their lives, you lose contemplation. The cost was hugely felt with Frankie's problems at home and his ironic image projected in relation to Tommy (ironic in that Frankie looked like saint compared to the seemingly demonic presence of Tommy, there was only black and white characterization). It is shown Frankie and his wife were having many troubles and it is most definitely implied that their children felt the blunt of such strain. Yet, there was no exploration except for a meager attempt to inject a subplot between Frankie and one of his daughters who held as much musical promise as her father did in which Frankie wanted for his daughter to pursue that talent. The resulting confrontation scene between the two characters played out more like a business meeting than a revelatory moment of family bonding. Was it suppose to unfold with such tonal qualities? There was not much developing context to prove or disprove this claim, unfortunately. By the time further unfortunate events happen, there is no emotional weight given to these events and, instead, the filmmakers inject a song by Frankie to somehow reflect the feelings of the events.
As a slight side note: there's another thing to consider for filmmakers attempting this genre: why not explore silence or the lack of music by the observed musician(s) instead planting a song, most likely predictable, in dramatic scenes. There are quite a few scenes, including the subplot with the daughter, that could have just been without Frankie's singing voice in the background during some sort of emotional realization, where the camera could just linger instead of cut away. Wouldn't it be great to showcase something in silence within a film that dramatizes music?
There is also a weakness of conflicting tone, what other critics have noted as trying to be 'Goodfellas' but falling far short, as Wesley Morris points out amusingly in his piece for Grantland. There is a theme of escaping the degrading environment of the New Jersey town, of escaping a gangster-suffocated life, that seems to never really bloom into fruition, always remaining as a recessive concept. This has more to do with the tonal qualities set by the cinematography and the production design. The town of Belleville did not look bad at all; there is a sense of a rugged nostalgia bit nothing to indicate any mentioned degradation or corruption. The bars and clubs the Four Seasons, then called the Four Lovers, played at had only a slight hint of seediness. Even the gangsters seemed, well, bureaucratic. Christopher Walken's character can almost be deemed suspicious as a gangster by how serene and calculating his character is; he seems to be more like a sagacious father figure than a don. In general, there was never a dense and ever-present sense that Frankie was continually trying to escape a tumultuous life for him and his family, just passing bits of dialogue. Thus, there was never really a clear indication about how gritty this film was suppose to be or how glamorous it was suppose to be. consider it tonal limbo. This is also present in the filming of the songs, which were not necessarily documentary style but still passive. Though the 'Sherry' performance on television seemed to be constructed effectively, highlighting glitz and glamour as well as meticulous choreography.
The film has a good sense of humor and there are moments that amusingly shine that almost go in contrary to some tonal approaches. Many involve the character of Joe Pesci (yes, that one, but not played by Joe) and others involve the band's producer and Vivaldi. The performances, though limited, were well done and the singing was excellent (it is a wonder there is anyone that can sing like Frankie Valli let alone someone who sings like him well). No matter how passive the film manages to observe the performances, they still sound great and the harmonies are enunciated appropriately and joviality is still felt. Eastwood's approach to topics may not have been the strongest choice but it was not a careless one. It still is a fun film and many of you will enjoy it and the music that it promotes.