Clint Eastwood is a strange duck. Very much his own man. I watched him on the Tony Awards show recently and he looked... uncomfortable. At age 84 he keeps working, turning out films which he directs fast and efficiently. Actually, I am a little suspicious of all this talk about shooting a film with only one or two takes per scene. I've been producing movies for 50+ years and I know that many, many sequences require more than that to get them right. Ridley Scott and Doug Liman are great directors and are infamous for shooting dozens of takes of each scene. So Eastwood's ease of shooting is somewhat suspect... I think he bores easily.... although most of his pictures seem to turn out okay.
Yes, my Huffington readers may remember that I have some small history with Clint, having written extensively about that 'empty chair' speech during the Republican convention. I was the producer of a film called Heartbreak Ridge at Warner Bros. 'til Clint became involved and 'withdrew' me and the writer off the project. (He only works with a small clique of his own guys and we didn't fit. Shadenfreude? I hope not. Rather water under the bridge.) All of this came to mind while I watched Eastwood's latest film, Jersey Boys. I Saw it at the astonishing new theater, iPic Westwood, with those screens where you pay a premium to sit in very comfortable seats and can eat and drink while viewing the picture. (In this case, the food was tastier than the picture. Thank you Sherry Yard. We'll do a separate Huffington about this fabulous movie/cuisine experience, but I heartily recommend the entire evening, including her delicious burgers, sizzling flatbread pizza, fried chicken and waffles, salads and veggies, along with cocktails to match.)
After the screening I drove down to the Segerstrom Hall in Costa Mesa, where the musical play has just opened and will perform until July 13, to refresh my memory of the original play, which I had seen some eight or nine years ago when it first opened. Yes, the musical was quite different from the film, much brighter, more playful and entertaining. The film was darker, fiercer, uglier, cast with 'unknowns' who seemed somewhat old for the characters they played. I later learned that the film featured many of the original and touring members of the play. A source who shall remain anonymous at Warner's told me that when Jon Favreau ("Chef") was going to direct the film, it was set to have some star value, but Clint went in a different direction, off-beat casting and digging into the often-criminal backgrounds of the boys... while the audiences were impatiently waiting for the familiar songs. Like I said... an unusual guy.
The musical is approaching its 10th year on Broadway. You may remember that it is about a group of street guys who made it big as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons but were still burdened by their personal demons. Eastwood is a West Coast jazz musician-turned-actor/director/producer, but his musical roots are deep, having composed the musical scores for seven of his films. Remember his musical films, the 1982 country-western tearjerker, Honkeytonk Man (in which he sang and played guitar) and the superb Bird, in 1988, about Charlie Parker? My Warner's source mentioned that Eastwood is still dreaming of remaking A Star is Born there, although it seems stuck in development hell. He told me that Oscar-winning producer Graham King (who owned the Jersey Boys rights after a fierce 2010 bidding war) brought the project to Eastwood in 2012, after it went into turnaround from Sony and then the other director, Favreau, had fallen out at Warner's. There was a script by John Logan, but Clint felt it needed a lot of work; that draft used a single narrator. Clint turned up the original screenplay by the musical's book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, which had multiple narrators, and went back to that version. Compared to the play, the film is much tougher depicting the price the guys paid for success. A reviewer in the Hollywood Reporter said, "It provides a bracing dose of melancholy before the final musical surge." Incidentally, since House of Cards used the device of the actors turning and talking directly to the audience, it has become a favorite device, used often and mostly badly here.
My lovely companion Alison told me that the 38-year-old film lead John Lloyd Young, playing the 16-year-old Frankie Valli, had originated the role on Broadway in 2005 and won a Tony Award in so doing. He left after two years, only to be recalled by the producers five years later to play it again. One day he was introduced to Eastwood, who was seeing the show, and six weeks later he was shooting the movie. He was, as always, pitch-perfect with Valli's falsetto. Most of the main actors in the film are also veterans of various versions of the stage musical. I was intrigued to see an actor playing the real-life Joe Pesci, a crucial supporting character here. I know the Hoboken-Belleville New Jersey neighborhood where the boys grew up, for my mother was from Newark. It's 1951 and we see Frankie, his buddy con-man Tommy DeVito (played irritatingly by late-30s Vincent Piazza. Joe Pesci's character in GoodFellas is named Tommy DeVito. Incidentally, for those of us who are fans of HBO's Boardwalk Empire, Vincent is the talented actor who play the vicious Lucky Luciano in that series) pulling off a botched robbery, only to come up against the neighborhood godfather, strongman Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo, played in faux Brando style by Christopher Walken. It's the Pesci character who changes the nature of their ragtag group when he introduces them to 15-year-old songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who revitalizes them with his songs. (The Wall Street Journal recounts how Eastwood asked the real songwriter Gaudio which actor had played him best, and he responded with Erich Bergen, who had appeared in the Las Vegas production.) The hotheaded Tommy initially resists, but he capitulates when the songs, combined with the smarts of producer and co-writer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) put the newly-named The Four Seasons on the path to fame.
Once we've established Frankie's singing prowess and Tommy's firecracker personality, bringing in bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) completes the group, and with Bob Crewe managing the moves, the avalanche of song hits begins..."Big Girls Don't Cry," "Sherry," Walk Like A Man," followed by the second flowering: "Rag Doll," "Bye Bye Baby" and my personal favorite, "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You." While about 60 percent of the musical play consists of songs, the $40-million-film trims that down significantly.
Eastwood goes heavy into the turbulent times which follow their initial success, as band manager Tommy gets deeply into mob debt and Walken's character has to ally with Frankie to extricate them from the dangerous situation. All the while Frankie's home life is fracturing as he spends more time on the road. It's a long way from the small musical which began life in 2004 at the La Jolla Playhouse. I was happy that Eastwood took up the same practice as the film of Les Mis and filmed the music in real-life takes rather than using pre-recorded synched songs. It was Variety which revealed that in 1962, when the quartet of working-class New Jersey guys shot to stardom, a gravelly-voiced cowboy actor on a TV western called Rowdy sang a cowboy ballad of that same name to no renown. Who could have imagined that, 50 years later, a pint-sized 80-year-old Frankie Valli would still be selling out arenas and that 84-year-old Eastwood, with four Oscars to his name, would go on to fame as a legendary actor/director/producer.
Rather than delineate my own discomfort and distaste for the movie, I am taking the liberty of informing you of some of today's critical comments. The Daily Beast features an article entitled "Jersey Boys Proves Clint Eastwood is Hollywood's Most Overrated Director"! It claimed that the new film was almost deliberately mediocre in every way. The writer, Andrew Romano, goes on to state that the new movie isn't a terrible picture... but it is doggedly, almost deliberately mediocre in every way. He adds that the thrill of the music is lost: "It is a misshapen, slapdash slog that never really connects." He concludes that Eastwood has only made one great movie, Unforgiven. He rips apart the ridiculous J.Edgar (to that I absolutely agree.) The writer says that Eastwood's style is largely procedural, quoting an Esquire writer:
The Clint movie is defined by what he won't do. He won't go over budget, he won't go over schedule. He won't storyboard, he won't produce a shot list. He won't rehearse. He doesn't say 'action' and he doesn't say 'cut.' He doesn't heed the notes supplied by studio executives... he won't accept the judgment of test screenings. He is well-known for his first takes... and for moving on if he gets what he wants.
The writer notes that Clint's thrift often distracts from the drama, as with Jersey Boys' chintzy sets. And his speed often hampers the performances. He ends his critique by saying:
Go watch Jersey Boys. Watch the stiff musical numbers, the cursory character development, and the saggy second half when everything goes wrong for Valli & Co. Then imagine what Marty Scorsese could have done with the material. That's the difference between a good director and a great one.
Joe Morgenstern, the astute Wall Street Journal reviewer, headlines his comments: "Right Tunes, Wrong Tone." He goes on to say that the film is cheerless, bordering on grim. Every time the Tommy character comes on screen, fun is banished and he's upbraiding his buddies with delusional fury. But the actor shouldn't be blamed for doing the bidding of his director, who banished nuance. The movie turns sour when the singers aren't singing. Manohla Dargis, the great New York Times reviewer, is kinder to them at the outset, calling the film a "likable, resolutely laid-back adaptation," before calling it a strange movie and slashing it to bits in her subsequent paragraphs.
As I write this review, I realize that I really do dislike the film version much more than the enormously-successful stage musical. The film is an edgier, more realistic, harsher and ultimately more disturbing take on the classic show business story. Clint gives equal weight to their personal stories, the failed marriages, the estranged kids, the dangerous scams, fearsome entanglement with the mob... this is Dirty Harry looking at the underbelly of show business... but then the wonderful songs almost make it all worthwhile. Incidentally, the 80-year-old Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons will appear on July 4 in Washington, D.C., televised live on PBS's A Capital Fourth.
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