Friday, June 27, 2014

Jersey Boys

Boys for All Seasons (It's Good to be Lead Singer)
"Silence is Golden (But My Eyes Still See)"

Let's consider the concept for a moment: "A Clint Eastwood Musical."

A Clint Eastwood....Musical.

You can almost hear the one-liners cascading from so many desperate comedians and/or late-night hosts.

Eastwood, now 84, has produced (for his long-existing Malpaso Company) and directed the film version of the Tony-Award winning story of The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys, which opened on Broadway in 2005, an example of what in the music industry is called a "jukebox musical" in which an existing song catalog is given financial legs by incorporating it into another medium.  In this case, it's the output of Bob Gaudio, keyboardist and song-writer for The Seasons, who, with producer Bob Crewe, created an amazing string of pop hits, that managed to cut a large swath through the 60's and 70's, bucking trends and cultural upheavals to become evergreen standards.  Unlike a lot of "jukebox musicals," though, it sticks close to the source, telling the story of how four guys from New Jersey coalesced into a working group of entertainers, found the key to success, and then splintered, 

Of course, they'd end up singing different tunes.

"You want to hear the real story?" says Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza, who didn't do the show on Broadway) to the camera as he walks-and-talks down a Belleville, New Jersey street.  It's the Spring of the Four Seasons, and DeVito splits his time between bar-dates, pulling off inept thefts, and chauffering for Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), a member of the Genovese crime family. As a favor to Gyp, DeVito lets Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young, Tony Award winner from the original cast)—everybody in town knows him and asks "Aren't you supposed to be home by 11?" because of his protective parents—sing lead on a couple of songs.  "A voice like yours," says Gyp to Frankie "is a gift of God."

And Castelluccio stands out, with a high tenor voice that growls on the low end and cuts like a falsetto ginzu when he pushes it.  He becomes part of DeVito's band after several incarnations and sputters—usually because a band member goes to prison for a stretch—but the band never takes off until they hire Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a 15-year old keyboardist with a reputation after writing the song "Short Shorts" on the recommendation of DeVito acquaintance Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo).  

Uh-huh.  That Joe Pesci.

Inspiration comes from all sources
Gaudio's inclusion is the moment when things start to go south, because that's when things start going successfully.  Castelluccio, now Frankie Valli ("with an I, not a Y") and Gaudio do a side-deal on a hand-shake that effectively cuts out DeVito and bass-man Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) from any solo work the two do together, and they immediately go shopping their ideas at New York's famous Brill Building (one of the best shots of the movie is Eastwood's elevator ride outside the building as music of all types and sources come pouring out each floor's window).  There they meet producer-artist Bob Crewe (the probably too-flamboyant Mike Doyle) who on the strength of Gaudio's songs and Valli's voice signs the Seasons to a contract...doing backup vocals.  They eventually rebel and on the strength of their first single "Sherry" (which becomes their first Number One single), their respective careers take off.  Spring is over.  Summer begins, and the eventual Fall.

Musicals are a different genre for director Eastwood—although this isn't necessarily a deal-breaker as John Huston directed the film version of Annie (at the age of 76), William Wyler made Funny Girl, and Howard Hawks directed Gentlemen Prefer Blondes* and a musical version of his own Ball of Fire seven years after the original—and Eastwood's history as an action choreographer actually pays off in dance sequences (the curtain-closer where he cuts loose with the entire cast is actually the best sequence and direction of the movie). 
Piazza, Bergen, Young and Lomenda
But, as light on his feet as Eastwood can be in his shot choices, the editing in his dialog scenes can be a little heavy-handed, as is often the case in his films.  At times, Eastwood makes things a little too clear to his audience, fearing that some will be left behind.  That kills comedy, which Jersey Boys is dependent on—the script, as the musical's book, is by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, Woody Allen's frequent collaborator (Annie Hall, Manhattan).  That measured pacing does pay off in a couple slow burn/double-take moments, but most of the time makes things feel out of step.  That's death in a musical.**

But, hey, it's a musical about a pop vocal barbershop quartet in the turbulent 1960's.  How out of step can you be?

Ultimately, it is the music on which the music hangs, and Eastwood, a music aficionado, presents the Gaudio/Crewe songs with all the love and reverence they deserve.  There's a particular segment where Gaudio's "art song" "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" is presented for the first time, where the horn section breaks contain an additional acidic "blat" not from the original recording, announcing "Hey, this is new!" for those of us familiar with the song as the Ultimate Vegas Lounge Closer (and from the pool-scene in The Deer Hunter, where, coincidentally, one of the crooners is a young Chris Walken). 

All in all, entertaining for the look at the seamier side of one of the squeaky-clean musical acts of rock/pop's heyday, which makes the typical "break-up just to make-up at the Hall of Fame ceremony" a bit more atypical and evergreen, like the music that will outlive any of its creators, or their stories on how they did it.

* If anything, it is musical directors who have a tougher transition to straight drama or comedy.

** However, there is one curiosity: one long beat—the last one of the movie before the credits, actually—where Eastwood hangs unnaturally long on shots of the actors after the sequence is over, like they're waiting for the applause that isn't going to come. Interesting moment.

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