Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jersey Boys

I have successfully avoided musical biopics for years now, for reasons I can't really explain. I love movies. I love music. You'd think I'd love movies about people who made music. And the thing is, I don't dislike them when I see them. But I've developed an aversion for the genre, I think due to:

  1. Biopics in general compress a human being's life.
  2. Musicals are full of music
  3. Musical biopics are therefore ripe for pandering at the expense of a real human being's life.
What I'm getting at is when I see a musical biopic done of a pop star whose heyday was, oh, about 1955 to 1979, I get this feeling that someone's life is going to be reduced to a cartoon to pander to Academy Baby Boomers in a bid to get some Oscars. 

The last musical biopic I saw on purpose was La Bamba (1987)—though I tried watching The Doors (1991) in the '90s when it came on cable and couldn't make it past the ponderous, self-important opening scene—and the two I've seen on accident since then (Hilary and Jackie and La Vie En Rose, with the latter being one of the more unpleasant movie experiences I've had in recent years, and the former being one of the most unpleasant movie experiences I've had ever) haven't really changed my mind.

About 10 minutes into Clint Eastwood's latest film Jersey Boys, the lead character, Frankie, starts to sing in a high-pitched voice and I thought, "Hey, that sorta sounds like Frankie Valli". And, if you haven't been living under a rock like I have, apparently, you know that Jersey Boys is, in fact, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. 

Heh. I'm a dope.

This is an interesting film, from the standpoint of the ratings. I don't expect Eastwood ever to get a fair shake from the critics again (since his "empty chair" bit), and sure enough, they give this a 53%. At the same time, the audience only rates it a 70%, which is a tepid thumbs up. 

Allowing for the possibility that politics may be depressing the score for audiences as well, I think that part of the reason is also that this is an adaptation of a play, and a lot of the moviegoers can be expected to have strong opinions about how that adaptation should have been done.

The Boy and I went in blind, which may have been an advantage. Interestingly, The Boy loved it, and the audience gave a hearty round of applause at the end. Also interestingly, most of the audience was about the same age as Frankie Valli (he turned 80 this year). I'm exaggerating only slightly: I was one of the younger members of the audience and I saw one girl about The Boy's age, maybe dragged there by grandpa.

As a biopic, it uses a great device of having the characters break the fourth wall to tell the story. And as the focus of the story changes, the characters telling the story do. We start by hearing from Tommy, the ne'er-do-well, street-wise kid who takes care of young Frankie (for some value of "take care of"), but gradually other characters begin to add and take over the narrative, and even contradict each other.

Eastwood does a great job not turning Valli's life (he's naturally the focus) into a cartoon, and the movie ends up with an epic feel, as Frankie goes from a 16-year-old wet-behind-the-ears kid to a middle-aged dad (all without looking any older!) in a way that feels well fleshed out.

In other words, most of what I object to in musical biopics is not here.

Which might, by the way, be part of why some people aren't liking it: The music of The Four Seasons was upbeat and high energy, even when it wasn't happy, but Eastwood doesn't confuse the music with the story behind it. And a lot of people really want that confusion. (Heh.) As the credits roll, there's a genuine musical dance number, and there are a lot of people who would've liked the movie to be that.

Which is fine. I love a good musical, too. I just get a little uncomfortable when a real (living!) human being's life is turned into one for fun and profit.

It's not my music, but it's good. I noticed that the singing by John Lloyd Young was a lot smoother and more polished than Valli's energetic, piercing twang. Also, I noticed the music has stayed with me in the days following. I was impressed by the amount of music, and the amount of variety in it over the years (which isn't something I'd noticed before).

I really liked it.

The acting was basically perfect, especially the casting of relative unknowns. The only name in the movie (that I recognized) was Chris Walken as the old gangster who gives Frankie a chit for singing his mother's favorite song in a club.

It's a great story: the criminal beginnings, the rise to success that nearly didn't happen, the little anecdotes. Frequent Woody Allen collaborator Marshall Brickman (who's been kind of quiet the last couple of decades) co-wrote the script with Rick Elise from the play (which they also wrote).

Honestly, with the ratings as low as they were, I was worried I was going to be bored, and there was nothing boring about it. 

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