Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Jersey Boys

Rebel Without a Cause

Clint Eastwood thinking he’s in a Michael Jackson "Beat It" video

Millionaires on parade, Clint Eastwood on the set with Frankie Valli

JERSEY BOYS           C        
USA  (134 mi)  2014  ‘Scope  d:  Clint Eastwood        Official site

As someone who never much liked Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons when they were incessantly overplayed on the radio in the 60’s and 70’s, where it always sounded like they had a “produced” rather than a natural sound, it would be a challenge to sit through yet another disappointing Clint Eastwood film since MILLION DOLLAR BABY (2004), a few of which have been among the worst films in this director’s career.  The Four Seasons were the epitome of mass marketing, viewed as old-fashioned and square, the kind of Lawrence Welk schmaltz and sentimentality that even your grandmother could enjoy, where live performances included few spontaneous moments and were identical to the radio sound, as there was little actual performance in an era that featured some of the greatest performers in pop, rock ‘n’ roll, and rhythm and blues history, where the sheer unconventionality of these artists broke from the suffocatingly conformist chains of the 50’s, an era when performers simply stood at a microphone and sang in tune.  Compare that to Tina Turner, Janis Joplin, James Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Eric Burdon, Jimi Hendrix, or Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones, who all revolutionized the stage performance.  Nonetheless, adapted from the writing team that produced the Tony Award winning 2005 Broadway musical that won Best Musical, with John Lloyd Young (now at age 38, where his character ranges from a teenager to the father of a teenager, also winning a Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical) in the lead role of Frankie Valli as the sole original Broadway performer to be featured in the movie, the film is largely a recreation of the theatrical conception.  This is what’s commonly known in the trade as a moneymaker, a “can’t lose” proposition given to an A-list director, while the investors then sit around and wait for the cash dollars to come rolling in.  That’s been the story of this theatrical production from the outset, costing $7.8 million dollars to produce on Broadway in November 2005, recouping all of their investments by the following June, where 9-years later the show continues to average $715,000 per week in grosses, where the weekly running costs are only about $400,000, which is low by Broadway standards, passing over $1.7 billion dollars in worldwide grosses earlier this year, where there are no announced plans to end its New York run.  Frankie Valli and his songwriter Bob Gaudio have earned $4.1 million dollars so far on the Broadway production alone, as well as a steady stream of revenue from their musical royalties, where early in their careers they inked contracts where they take 6% of the music’s net profits.  And now, the movie, which is wall-to-wall songs, nearly every one a similar looking set piece, which is cheap, easy to construct, assemble a cast, and shoot, which just earns more money into the hands of the investors.  All of this sounds like the Hollywood cash cow business formula, having little if anything to do with cinema itself.  But this typifies what the movies have become—a successful business product.

From the opening thirty seconds, one is immediately less than impressed to the point of being maddened by the look of the film, shot by Tom Stern, who has worked with Eastwood on every film since BLOOD WORK (2002), as the desaturated look has the color faded out, leaving the picture looking dull and lifeless, while every street scene, with every speck of dirt washed away, also resembles the look of a movie set, mostly shot on the Warner Brothers backlot, bearing no resemblance whatsoever to reality.  This deglamorization detracts from the showbiz glitz that is otherwise accentuated throughout, which is basically a trip down memory lane, where the musical production is a showpiece for the Frankie Valli songbook that is heard throughout, with each song sounding so similar, where they even make fun of this criticism early in their rise to success, calling the songs “derivatives,” unoriginal, but copies of similar sounding hit songs.  Apparently the fascination is not so much with the actual voice itself, but with Young recreating the swooning falsetto of Frankie Valli, which was all the rage in soul music in the 60’s and 70’s, like Sam Cooke A Change Is Gonna Come -- Sam Cooke (Original Version in HD YouTube (3:15), Smokey Robinson & the Miracles Smokey Robinson - The Tracks Of My Tears Live (1965) on ...  YouTube (3:05), Curtis Mayfield and the Impressions Gypsy Woman - YouTube (2:20), Eddie Kendricks from the Temptations JUST MY IMAGINATION (1971)- THE TEMPTATIONS YouTube (2:41), or the Isley Brothers ISLEY BROTHERS LAY LADY LAY.wmv - YouTube (10:21), but also Roy Orbison Roy Orbison - In Dreams - YouTube (2:54), Del Shannon Del Shannon - Runaway (Rare Stereo Version) - YouTube (2:20), and Barry Gibb with the Bee Gees Bee Gees _ How Can You Mend a Broken Heart ('71) HQ ... YouTube (3:56), where the sound is so uniquely distinctive that listeners often can’t tell if the singer is black or white.  Coming from the Doo Wop tradition of the late 40’s and 50’s, the term originated in the early 60’s, getting its origins from four guys singing a cappella on the street corner while harmonizing, where the lead falsetto voice was a must, like Little Anthony and the Imperials, Frankie Lymon and the Teenagers, or Michael Jackson and the Jackson 5, often taking advantage of a young teen singer’s natural adolescent voice before it matures through puberty, at which point that singer’s career was over by the time they turned twenty (which thankfully never happened with Michael Jackson).  The 60’s were perhaps the golden age of the falsetto in pop and rock music, where hearing falsetto voices was common, while today practitioners would include Prince, Thom Yorke of Radiohead, Bono of U2, Chris Martin of Coldplay, or Justin Timberlake.  Frankie Valli is certainly one of the best mainstream pop singers to legitimize the falsetto, where you could hit the high notes while still expressing a masculine feeling of love or defiance.  While he sounds a bit tinny and screeching at times, the group broke into the music scene with Valli’s indisputable sound, Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons - Sherry ( 1962 YouTube (2:34), the first of a string of #1 hits.   
Recreated by screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Brickman is a former head writer of the Tonight Show (1969—70), also Woody Allen’s writer for ANNIE HALL (1977), MANHATTAN (1979), and MANHATTAN MURDER MYSTERY (1993).  There are some extremely funny, drop dead laughter moments, most generated by Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo, easily the best thing in the film as the local mobster, where according to one of his underlings, local hood Tommy Devito (Vincent Piazza), “If you’re from my neighborhood, you got three ways out:  You could join the army.  You could get mobbed up.  Or—you could become a star,” where for this group, “it was two out of three.”  Set in an Italian-American town of Bellevue, just outside of Newark, Jersey, where Frankie was actually born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, a kid with a voice, the depiction of the mob, however, couldn’t be more sugar coated, where Gyp loves Frankie’s voice to the point of tears when he sings “My Mother’s Eyes” My Mother's Eyes by Frankie Valli (Valley, Vally) - YouTube (3:26) (“That was my mother’s favorite song,”), so he does what he can to protect him, literally offering his services out of the goodness of his heart (only in the movies), as if it’s his responsibility to look after this kid and keep him out of harm’s way.  When local punks and hoods get jail time (including their founder and lead guitarist), in this film prison is a home away from home, where they greet everyone with a smile, even the guards, where everyone asks about the family, where it’s more a family reunion than a prison sentence.  This sanitized version accounts for why little of this criminal record was known about the Four Seasons before the Broadway production, where it likely would have impacted their early years, as record companies might have refused to play their records.  This part of Jersey’s history, which was the major emphasis in David O. Russell’s American Hustle (2013), is simply used for jokes here, suggesting it’s normal for kids get into a little trouble in their youth, but they straighten it all out by the time they become adults.  Of interest, it’s not Frankie, but Vincent Piazza as bad-boy Tommy DeVito that runs the show for most of the picture, playing the swaggering founder of the group, whose loud mouth, obnoxious personality, and lack of business sense gets the band into a deep hole financially, spending the rest of their careers paying off the debt.  So when he steps aside, the vanilla character of Frankie Valli is so underdeveloped that the movie falters without the interest of a mob connection.  All attempts to revive a dysfunctional family fail miserably, so without much of a story, the only thing that matters throughout are the songs. 

An amusing anecdote is Frankie and the Four Seasons actually performed in prison for the real-life Gyp after he was handed a 12-year sentence in 1970, where there were strong intimations that his onscreen persona should be portrayed “respectfully,” where the choice of Christopher Walken must be criminal royalty.  Additionally, Joseph Russo’s depiction of Joe Pesci as just one of the boys from the neighborhood comes across reverentially, as if he’s waiting in the wings to gladhand all the patrons after the show, flashing that big smile.  Also amusing is an Eastwood nod to himself in showing Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) watching TV, which turns out to be a clip of the young actor Eastwood half a century ago on the television show Rawhide (1959—65).  While the direction is utterly conventional, shooting a cavalcade of hits as one set piece after another of the group singing onstage to yet another thrilled audience somewhere, anywhere, which is like watching a Vegas act, where one of the most unnerving aspects is when, at different stages throughout the film, each member of the Four Seasons speaks straight into the camera, telling the story of the group by talking directly to the audience, as they do in the theatrical version, the difference being on stage there’s a connection to the songs, while here’s it’s just disconnected talk that gets lost as extraneous material.  Once they get going, however, the endless blur of Frankie Valli hits just keeps coming, where this may be music to the ears of some, perhaps reaching a crescendo with the performance of Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” Can't Take My Eyes off You - Frankie Valli and The 4 ... YouTube (3:45), but the only break in the entire picture was a road performance by an all-female group, The Angel’s, singing “My Boyfriend’s Back” Angels - My Boyfriend's Back - YouTube (2:09), which felt like a revelation.  The film is a bit lackluster and overlong, despite Eastwood cutting out several of the songs, and runs out of steam, where eventually it all looks and feels the same, with John Lloyd Young channeling Michael Corleone in THE GODFATHER (1972) by the end of the picture, which ends with a celebratory Coke advertising style dancing-in-the-streets medley over the closing credits that features every character in the film, a style put to better use by Ellen DeGeneres in her Oscars trailer Oscars® Trailer: Ellen DeGeneres - YouTube (1:00), perhaps originating in Marc Webb’s (500) DAYS OF SUMMER (2009) with Hall & Oates 500 Days Of Summer - You Make My Dreams - YouTube  (2:00), where what’s missing is the urgency and sense of vitality that exists onstage in the live theatrical performance. 

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