Arguably the most significant acquitting factor and favored defense for his predominantly libertarian cinema, Clint Eastwood’s tendency toward unashamed self-critique and persona deconstruction has dictated the course of his filmmaking career from its very start. Beginning with 1971’s Play Misty for Me and its delirious send-up of Eastwood’s sex symbol status, the Hollywood icon’s directorial legacy would come to be defined by similar image subversions — the PTSD-addled Confederate soldier Josey Wales, Bronco Billy’s ex-con turned pretend cowboy, Honkytonk Man’s doomed wannabe country western star, and so forth. This recurring fixation has persisted throughout Eastwood’s five decades as a feature film director, manifesting in particularly inspired, at times gonzo fashion in his most recent work — most explicitly so in 2018’s The Mule which cast him against daughter Alison as estranged father and child. But four years prior to this direct work of metafiction apologia, Clint found a more indirect route to similar sentiment through Jersey Boys, a cinematic adaptation of the hit Broadway show that doubled as biography of R&B quartet The Four Seasons. In the fairly classical rise-and-fall narrative arc of this pop group (as arranged by screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) and its frontman/lead vocalist Frankie Valli, Eastwood locates an experience resonant with his own and those of the white, male, American celebrity in the mid-20th century, while also disrupting the assumed naivete and decency projected back on to the artists and performers of that era.
Born four years apart on opposite coasts, Valli and Eastwood are linked by a shared destiny, wayward young men of privilege (moderately so in the former’s case, significantly so in the latter’s) who found purpose and immense popularity as entertainers, ultimately becoming internationally recognized superstars of the 1960s. As Jersey Boys tells it, Valli, born Castelluccio (and played by John Lloyd Young, who originated the role), came of age in 1950s Newark in an Italian neighborhood under the control/protection of mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Cristopher Walken). Though Valli gets himself entangled in a handful of petty criminal acts by way of future bandmate Tommy DeVito (Boardwalk Empire’s Vincent Piazza) and various local goons, he (and the audience) are largely shielded from the morally compromising elements of organized crime at the behest of DeCarlo, played by Walken with the expected warmth and geniality that opts to disregard this character’s implied violent nature. It’s a fitting choice in response to Young’s blank take on Valli, sketched out here as a man without qualities, though in possession of a miraculous gift, a unique falsetto, alien and/or angelic, that earns him freedom from the more tedious aspects of everyday life. In actuality, he’s enjoying a classic patron/artist relationship backed by the mafia that isolates him from misfortune and poverty, but also reality. But of course, the benefits of this arrangement really only trickle down so far, and so while Valli’s life and comfort progress mostly unhindered, his family and bandmates suffer, and as they grow and move on, he remains unchanged.
Largely recounted via fourth wall-breaking monologues delivered straight to the camera, Jersey Boys functions not only as celebrity/self-critique, but also as an interrogation of cinematic perspective, particularly in the context of historical dramatization. Riding out an uncharacteristically convoluted screenplay, Eastwood allows the film’s action to be steered by the warring biases of three of the Seasons — the aforementioned Piazza along with Erich Bergen’s Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda’s Nick Massi — fittingly excluding Young/Valli’s commentary until the very end. Though the film prioritizes (and succeeds at) a passive enjoyment (i.e. ignoring the why and the how of the plot sequencing), it’s in fact carefully and logically constructed to mirror this rather chaotic narration schema, the story traded between protagonists in conflict with one another, the narrative constantly undermined and backtracked over, but maintaining continuity. A screenwriter gambit informed by the mechanics of Jersey Boys’ source medium, Eastwood leans into this garish device while otherwise rejecting traditional Hollywood and Broadway musical aesthetics. Reteaming with cinematographer Tom Stern (his DP since Blood Work), editor Joel Cox (a collaborator since The Enforcer), and production designer James J. Murakami (working exclusively for the Eastwood family in this capacity), Jersey Boys makes no attempt to recalibrate this crew’s previously achieved style in deference to the new genre territory they found themselves in. Unfolding much like any sturdy, latter-day Eastwood drama (conceived in brown/gray color palette, the cuts coming at a measured clip), musical numbers are staged in traditional cinematic fashion, part of a larger mise-en-scéne as opposed to a commandeering of it as is usually characteristic of the musical. Only in the film’s credits does Eastwood indulge the aesthetics of the stage musical, turning a nostalgic reverie at the band’s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction (as relayed by Valli in his sole moment of narration) into joyous celebration rendered uncanny in contrast to Jersey Boys’ otherwise classically cinematic appeal. Bringing out the entire cast to perform the group’s most iconic song, “December, 1963,” as a sort of encore, the characters are suddenly divorced from the context of their relationships to one another under the harsh stage lighting, and we are reminded of their literal and narrative role as supporting players in Valli’s story. Though, in his final lines, Bergen’s Gaudio smugly asserts that “…none of this could have happened without me!”, a not untrue statement, yet there’s never much doubt that Jersey Boys belongs to Valli, who needn’t challenge his cohorts for control over the narrative trajectory, as cultural memory already defaults to his perspective.
And this is the great frustration of Valli that Eastwood recognizes in himself and, perhaps, in an entire generation of male celebrity; after all, as a flickering, neon bowling alley sign reveals here, “Four Seasons” is just a couple letters removed from “our sons.” Achieving incredible success almost casually, Eastwood uses Jersey Boys as an opportunity to reconsider the full scope of the machine that made his and Valli’s cultural ascendancy possible, dispelling rose tinted presuppositions about these pop stars’ sense of camaraderie and innocence along the way (in a sort-of-cameo both self-deprecating and telling, Gaudio switches off an episode of Rawhide in favor of the company of a couple of prostitutes). Like White Hunter, Black Heart before it and The Mule not long after, Jersey Boys is an astute act of self-critique, distinguished from those by a grander, generational condemnation, summed up elegantly in Valli’s closing words on the band: “Like that bunny on TV, it just keeps going and going and going. Chasing the music. Trying to find our way home.”