Musicals can be a very difficult thing to get right on the big screen if they originated on the stage. Thankfully, Clint Eastwood’s effort to bring the popular Broadway/West End to audiences in cinemas is superb. A wonderfully enjoyable piece of entertainment with terrific characterisation, great music and (for the most part) perfectly pitched humour.
The story of Frankie Valli (ne Castelluccio) and the Four Seasons makes for a compelling two hours-plus of screen time. Of course, some details have been changed, band members have been slightly altered and incidents exaggerated. But generally, this is the true story of the iconic band of preppy young men singing about Big Girls not crying and boys trying to Walk Like Men.
At the start it looks like Tommy DeVito, played by Vincent Piazza, will be the leading figure throughout the film. The films opens up with a straight-to-camera voiceover from him, wandering round his local 1960s New Jersey neighbourhood as if he owns the place (and many would argue he did). It looks like this is going to be Boardwalk Empire meets Skins, with Tommy and his young pals enjoying drink and sex and clubbing. But the kind of clubbing here isn’t the loud-eadrum-destroying-beats of an Oceana nightclub. I’m talking small, smoke-filled music clubs that have amateur acts putting themselves in front of an audience for their first, shaky public performance. And this is how we see the Four Seasons grow, with John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli taking up the lead as the film turns its attention to the dynamics of the group.
Eastwood has bravely and controversially decided to bring the drama to the forefront and pushed the music to the background, with performances forming part of digetic accompaniments rather than traditional break-into-song interludes. Some have had issues with this decision, though for me it showed an intuitive understanding as to how cinema works. Here, the narrative is the backbone of the piece and the songs complement that. Reversing this may work on the stage, but on the big screen you need something stronger that draws you into the world presented to you.
The biggest problem I had with the film – one that I cannot let go without mentioning – is the portrayal of women. Almost every woman is either an object there for men to verbally abuse, sexually penetrate, objectify, be rude to or be irritated by. It subscribes to the unfortunate and deeply offensive tradition of portraying women as either ‘Bitches’ or ‘Whores’ (or both). For example, Valli’s wife is shown as an obnoxious moaning drunk. Though Valli himself doesn’t get let off without some criticism, a more nuanced and balanced approach to the disintegration of his home life would have been fairer and more insightful. Another scene where Tommy presents a woman to a less sexist and more respectful member of the band (I’m avoiding saying who on purpose) as something of a gift at a party, then waiting for him at the door to see if he’s had sex with her (he does) is presented as casual and funny. I thought it was rather horrid. The representation of gay people in the film is also questionable at best, though it would be a stretch to say the film is outright homophobic.
On the sidelines, Christopher Walken wanders around doing his thing as a generous mobster who comes to the band’s aid when they most need it. He’s done this kind of thing before, but he’s so good at it the scenes he occupies are magnificent (and frequently very funny). He succeeds in stealing every frame he appears in.
The look of the film is also particularly interesting. Shot through with a dusty, almost monochrome look and filmed digitally using the Arri Alexa camera, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern have created something beautiful with a deliberately limited palette.
I’m avoiding calling this a masterpiece; it isn’t, though it is very easy to get caught up in the infectious enthusiasm displayed onscreen. I came out the cinema loving it, though on reflection, in the cold light of day this stands up as a solid and highly enjoyable piece of escapism. Jersey Boys is not the Best Picture contender it could have been but overall it is still robust, substantial and very much worth a watch.
Jersey Boys (2014), directed by Clint Eastwood, is released in the UK by Warner Bros Pictures, Certificate 15. Watch the trailer below:
This review is published in association with The National Student.