Credit: Mubi
by Brendan Nagle Featured Film Retrospective

Clint Eastwood: A Passion for Music

June 2, 2022

Clint Eastwood is perhaps as iconic a figure as there is in the last half-century of Hollywood cinema. Gunslinger machismo, a hard-nosed boomer ethos, and, especially in certain cinephile circles, a dedication to artistic self-interrogation are among the numerous qualities practically synonymous with his name and image. But there’s a less often remarked-upon component of his personhood, one that predates all of the others: a passion for music. Long before his ascent to movie stardom, young Clint dreamed of being a musician. He taught himself piano by listening to Fats Waller records, and would regularly sneak into Oakland jazz clubs as a teenager to see his heroes play — greats like Lester Young, Coleman Hawkins, and, of course, Charlie Parker. And while jazz has always been the central object of his musical obsessions, his interests are broad, extending to classical music, oldies pop, and country-western –– the latter of which he implemented on his first ever record, Rawhide’s Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites, released in 1963. An attempt to capitalize on his role in the TV western Rawhide, this first pivot into music wasn’t a commercial success, though it is a pleasant listen, and fans more familiar with the guttural voice that croaks over the credits of Gran Torino might be surprised at the silky smoothness of young Eastwood’s singing. Later in his career he would begin to compose music for films, scoring a good portion of his own work from Bridges of Madison County onwards, often with the help of his son Kyle, a professional jazz bassist.

But even before he was contributing compositions to them, the profound impact that music had on his life, and his art, could be seen all over his films. In fact, it’s something we can easily trace all the way back to his directorial debut in 1971, Play Misty For Me. Though on paper the film might seem a rather straightforward piece of pulp, as brought to life by Eastwood it’s imbued with a number of deeply personal touches. Consider first that his lead character, Dave Garver (played, of course, by Eastwood), is a local jazz radio DJ: not only does this represent the first of many instances of Eastwood reflecting on the nature of being a public figure, but one wonders if he might see Dave as an alternate version of his own life, one where he was able to make a career out of his love of jazz. Perhaps even more notable is the film’s location. Though the script was originally set in Los Angeles, Eastwood successfully lobbied to shoot in his own home of Monterey County, and he seems intent on showing it off, from the copious shots of its beautiful coastal vistas to the inclusion of numerous local hangouts.

Credit: Universal

The film itself is a thriller that finds Dave as the target of an obsessed fan turned deranged stalker, and Eastwood does a fine job his first time behind the camera, already displaying the thoughtful, sturdy classicism that he would come to be known for. But there’s one extended sequence that really stands out, one that serves as another local showcase of sorts: it comes about two-thirds of the way through the film, after Evelyn, the stalker, has been taken away to a sanitarium, meaning, presumably, that Dave can now resume his regular life, free of danger. After an idyllic love-making session in a lush Californian grove, the film cuts suddenly to a trombonist onstage at the Monterey Jazz Festival, footage captured by Eastwood and his crew at the 1970 fest. (He would later go on to serve on the festival’s board of directors, a position he’s held since 1992.) The scene goes on for nearly five minutes, showing a handful of different acts, and though Eastwood’s character is seen making his way through the crowd, the handheld documentary style represents a sharp break from the rest of the film. Once Cannonball Adderley’s group takes the stage, Eastwood disappears entirely — it simply becomes a concert film. And it’s incredibly telling that for this brief respite (because, of course, Evelyn does not stay away), this moment meant to represent a feeling of freedom and serenity, Eastwood chooses to make a detour to a jazz concert. What else could be more peaceful, more pure than live music? Just as Dave is able to briefly forget Evelyn and the havoc she has wreaked on his life, so the audience almost forgets we’re watching a film about a violent maniac, as we’re asked to step away from the narrative and to simply appreciate this joyous music and all of these people gathered to dance along to it.

For most audiences, Play Misty For Me was the first real indication of Eastwood’s jazz fandom, but the film that really cemented that reverence was his 1988 Charlie Parker biopic, Bird. At this point in his career, this was only the second time Eastwood had directed a film without starring in it (the other being the little-seen Breezy), and it’s clearly a passion project. Of particular note are the lengths to which he went to present the sounds of Parker’s actual playing. He pushed to use Bird’s real solos, rather than hiring a soundalike, but since Parker reigned during the age of monaural recording, this required a complex process that involved digitally isolating his solos and enlisting some former collaborators to re-record the backing tracks on Dolby four-track, that way they could fashion a soundtrack appropriate for theatrical sound systems. The results are excellent, and from the first time that Bird is seen taking the bandstand for a dazzling, one-of-a-kind solo, it’s obvious that they made the right decision. Notable, too, for a director known for his quick and efficient work on set, was Eastwood’s insistence that star Forest Whitaker actually learn the saxophone, so that his pantomiming would look realistic. This attention to detail only further indicates the extreme admiration he has for his subject. (The same sort of admiration can be seen even more directly in his installment of Martin Scorsese’s documentary series The Blues, not at all an essential film, though it’s somewhat worthwhile just to see the way Clint lights up interviewing artists he clearly idolizes.)

Credit: Warner Bros.

But Bird is characterized by an emotional depth that goes far beyond mere hero over-worship: the film is attuned to a feeling of immense pain. It’s impressive, in fact, the way Eastwood is able to pay tribute to Parker’s incredible genius while refusing to romanticize the tortured personal life that went along with it. It’s a haunted film, cloaked in shadows, the narrative unfurling in a radically non-linear fashion, with Parker’s memories swirling together in a manner that suggests a lengthy deathbed flashback. And it’s easily connected to themes that would continue to crop up in the director’s career, Bird fitting in alongside many of Eastwood’s subjects, American figures hailed as national heroes while being completely deserted by their country when it matters. Speaking in an interview with Film Quarterly from around the time of Bird’s release, Eastwood calls jazz “the true American art form” and states “It’s the freedom Americans dream of, a kind of freedom idealized through sound, in a way. Whether all Americans have that kind of freedom is another thing. They dream of it, though most unfortunately never attain it.” This speaks well to the tragic irony of Parker’s situation, the contrast between his stunningly liberated music and his shackled personhood, but the quote strikes as doubly significant for how it suggests something profound about the way jazz music has informed Eastwood’s own artistry. That quote resonates strongly with the sort of films that more clearly typify his oeuvre: the Westerns or the later biographical works, films that are fixated on probing these mythic notions of American culture, such that one begins to suspect that perhaps these seeds were in fact planted well before his days working under the direction of Sergio Leone and Don Siegel, that many of these ideas began to churn in the mind of a teenager as he watched his idols playing their beautiful, free, American music, unjustly penniless.

We can see some of these ideas playing out in another of his films, 1983’s Honkytonk Man. This is the only time Eastwood cast himself as a musician, though here he steps outside of the realm of jazz, returning to the role of country-western troubadour. Still, it’s hard to consider the film now without thinking of that bridge between jazz music and the mythic freedom of the American West. Much like the titular hero of another underappreciated ‘80s film of his, Bronco Billy, Honkytonk Man’s down-and-out singer Red Stovall is a sort of artificial western hero. He’s a gunslinger out of time, an entertainer who traffics heavily in the aesthetics of a fabled Old West, donning a Stetson hat and singing “Cowboy Favorites” well beyond the days when cowboys actually reigned. It’s not that Red isn’t an authentic practitioner of his craft, it’s simply that his craft is one based in a romanticized past, one that also conjures a fantastical sense of freedom — albeit perhaps not in quite the same way that Bird’s music does. And Red is himself another example of that too-common figure Eastwood referred to, the American dreamer unable to attain his dream. After a road trip full of hijinks and adventure, he does eventually reach the Grand Ole Opry, his Mecca, in time for an audition, and he is even granted a recording contract, but his tuberculosis overwhelms him before he’s able to finish it out. Though it’s not overly emphasized, there is a disturbing dynamic at play with the record company: one gets the sense that they’re taking advantage of his condition, knowing he’s desperate to record before he dies, and figuring they can get him to quickly pump out some songs for cheap before he does. During the recording session Red sings until he literally cannot, but his coughing fit mid-song doesn’t stop the music, as a session guitarist (played, ironically, by country legend Marty Robbins) steps forward to seamlessly fill his place, spurred on by the frantic producer. Here we can identify a second challenged illusion: not just the false visage of the old cowboy, but also that of a bright and shiny music-industrial apparatus, one in reality much colder and more mechanical than the warmth of its product might otherwise suggest.

Credit: Letterboxd

There’s one last film that’s important to address here, and it’s the most recent explicitly musical work of Eastwood’s career: 2014’s Jersey Boys. The pairing of director and material came as a surprise to some — it originated as a Scorsese project, his bombast and penchant for Italian-American milieu making him a much more logical fit. It follows, then, that Eastwood’s adaptation of the Broadway hit is indeed undeniably strange. It’s often quite dour, as much a tragedy as it is a celebration of the Four Seasons. And it’s also coated with a layer of conspicuous artifice, from the recurrent fourth-wall breaks to the insipid visual sheen. However, that artifice finds some resonance within the narrative, most notably in the ironic dichotomy between the group’s squeaky-clean sound (and image) and their rough, criminal reality. As we dig deeper into the film, it becomes clear that Jersey Boys is not merely a random for-hire job, but rather a genuinely personal work for Eastwood. Though it hits many of the typical biopic beats — cutesy accidents inspiring iconic songs, etc. — it’s above all a story concerning the band’s navigation through the music business, from mafia ties and loan sharks to the strain that celebrity and endless touring put on personal relationships. And as such, it eventually becomes the story of the actual music itself being eclipsed by that industry and the demands necessarily put upon its participants. What was only obliquely alluded to in Honkytonk Man becomes essentially the entire subject here. Consider also a brief televisual cameo of Eastwood himself, who appears momentarily during a party, his image adorning the screen of a small TV set during his Rawhide days. There are some meaningful implications to explore as far as the placement of that cameo, the fact that it directly leads into a sort of masculine rite of passage with Bob Gaudio being effectively forced by his bandmates to lose his virginity, but more pertinent for now is the reminder of a temporal parallel between director and subject. The Four Seasons’ rise to fame lines up remarkably well with Eastwood’s: they each spent the ’50s toiling in their respective industries, and are at this moment, 1962 or so, each poised on the brink of their first major breakthroughs — Eastwood’s star turn in Fistful of Dollars comes only two years after the group’s first smash hit “Sherry.” In his work, Eastwood has made a habit of producing films that seem to be rather explicit reflections on his own life and his mistakes (The Mule, as a recent example), and in this film’s depiction of relationships, and ultimately art, corrupted by pursuits of money and power, we can see him doing something similar here, with the band as his proxy.

Jersey Boys’ conclusion finds the quartet reunited in 1990 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and amid their celebratory performance, the film grants each member a final word, delivered directly to the camera. Frankie Valli summons the image of “four guys under a streetlamp,” remarking that “when all there was was the music, that was the best.” It’s a notion that vaguely brings to mind the on-screen text that ends Bird: “This picture is dedicated to musicians everywhere.” Both are moving sentiments, gesturing toward a sort of pure, simple conception of art, one unmarred by the contamination that comes when that art is brought into contact with capital, when it becomes a career. But in Frankie’s case, the statement pointedly rings hollow: if there was indeed a time of purity, “when all there was was the music,” then it certainly doesn’t appear in the film. From the very start, music is presented first and foremost as a way out of their dead-end neighborhood, and even their earliest days as a group are marked by significant obstacles and dysfunction. In fact, that image, of “four guys under a streetlamp,” is never actually seen in the film, not until a credit sequence denouement that seems to serve as an explicit embodiment of the fantasy Frankie conjures — one final artificial blowout. It’s an entirely constructed image of the past, a nostalgic delusion. Tommy DeVito’s own commentary provides some emphasis: “Everybody remembers it the way they need to, right?” Frankie claims to be “like that bunny on TV with the battery, I just keep going and going and going, chasing the music.” But what is he really chasing? We’re witnessing a permutation of the same romanticized mythos that propelled Red Stovall, Bronco Billy, even Richard Jewell, the same spurious sense of freedom that inspired countless filmic gunslingers in the West, the same liberation that Charlie Parker could only ever achieve up on the bandstand. And beneath that facade of freedom, lies the same gaping, empty abyss. In 2014, an 84-year-old Clint Eastwood gazed upon the career of a seminal American pop group and found a vessel to reflect on his own art, his own life. Was it all worth it, he wondered? Was it even real? Jazz may have given young Clint his first glimpse under the veneer of that American Dream, but he’s now spent nearly an entire lifetime grappling with the consequences of its false promise.

Part of Clint Eastwood: Myth, History, Revisionism.