“Frankie’s okay. He’s no Neil Sedaka.”
Here it is again, the ol’ New Movie Directed By Clint Eastwood But Without Him Acting In It rigmarole. It goes like this: New Clint movie comes out. It doesn’t seem like my kind of thing. It gets bad reviews (at least if it came out in recent years). I genuinely intend to see it in theaters, but I keep putting it off. There’s always something I’m more excited for that’s playing. Like, uh, I believe I might’ve seen some robot/dinosaur related picture around the time JERSEY BOYS came out. So I end up missing the movie in theaters. Months later it comes out on video. I’m not excited. I feel like I’m doing my homework. I watch it.
And then the Hey, this is pretty good!
I wouldn’t say this surprised me as much as J. EDGAR (which I still believe is totally underrated, and got 10% worse reviews even than JERSEY BOYS, according to Rotten Tomatoes) but I’m happy to say I enjoyed it. It’s a solid, entertaining biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons based on a Broadway show of some kind. Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire plays guitarist Tommy DeVito and then the guys from the stage version play the other three: John Lloyd Young as lead singer Frankie Valli, Erich Bergen as songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as bassist Nick Massi.
I thought it was gonna be a musical, but thankfully it’s not. It’s just a story about musical performers doing musical performances, recorded by the actors. I don’t know about the show, but the movie version only has one actual musical number and it’s during the end credits. In my opinion it is more of a blooper reel than an official part of the movie, because why would they be dancing around on a soundstage street singing songs, I mean it just doesn’t make sense.
The rest of the time it’s them singing “Sherry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” and stuff, and these are good songs. So it’s not a problem.
But I’m not saying it’s not stylized. The big storytelling gimmick is that each of the four take turns narrating the story, turning to the camera mid-scene to do it. I remember critics making fun of this when the movie screened, to which I say stop being such cinematic pussies. Just ’cause it’s not normally how it’s done doesn’t mean it can’t ever be done. I think for this it works. It allows for shifts in perspective without seeming like a wannabe GOODFELLAS.
The idea of the story is that these guys, or at least the first three members before Bob joins, were troublemaking hoods in Belleville, New Jersey who dreamed of getting out of the neighborhood either in the mob, by being famous, or both. (Like Sinatra, they keep saying.) Tommy was the biggest Jersey asshole of the bunch, but recognized the great talent in younger Frankie, got him in the group and tried to protect him from being sidelined by juvenile delinquency. Nick was the sideman, the quiet guy who puts up with all the shit, but instead of getting mostly ignored by the movie like these type of characters usually do he gets to steal it at the end, taking over the POV when he gets fed up, even forcing it to skip back in time to show the problems he noticed earlier that everybody else ignored.
I didn’t know this was gonna happen, but Joe Pesci (who has somehow never worked with Clint) is actually a character in the movie, played by Joseph Russo (JERSEY SHORE SHARK ATTACK). Russo sort of resembles Pesci physically, doesn’t do a straight up impression, does have a pretty corny in-joke (asking the famous question “Funny how?” No LETHAL WEAPON 2–4 references though as far as I noticed).
Bruce Willis is also a Jersey boy, I don’t know why the movie doesn’t mention that. It kinda pisses me off, actually. It’s just not fair. Anyway, Pesci is a mutual friend who introduces the group to genius songwriter Bob, who instantly makes Tommy jealous by being more important to the group. The more talented nerd butting heads with the more aggressive cool guy.
You know, I bet this is pretty much the white version of the STRAIGHT OUTTA COMPTON movie that comes out next year. The “getting out of the hood by any means necessary” story, and then the fractured brotherhood, the feuding, the breakup, the apologetic reunion years later. And the old man makeup during the old men making up scene at the Rock ‘n Roll Hall of Fame is pretty good, unlike earlier when it’s just youth + sideburns and goatees. I was pretty shocked when all the sudden Frankie had four or five teen daughters. I thought he was still like 25.
As you’d expect, it has some of the usual biopic problems. There’s the little things, the distracting anachronisms like when a Warhol Campbell’s Soup print is prominently displayed while the narrator is saying it’s 1959. And there’s the unbelievable dramatization of moments considered important in retrospect. The most painful example is when the Seasons call producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and sing part of a brand new song over the phone, and after about two seconds he excitedly tells his engineer to get ready to double Frankie’s vocals.
“I’ve never heard of that before.”
“That’s because it’s never been done before!”
(I wonder how he knew what “doubled” meant then.)
It’s like one of the writers was just really into that little detail that that song had more than one track of Frankie singing, and they were not gonna rest until some character awkwardly pointed it out.
I’m glad Crewe is a character though. I never knew that “The Bob Crewe Generation” who did the excellent BARBARELLA soundtrack was a gay guy that wrote and produced with Frankie Valli. According to my research he’s also credited as lyricist for the JERSEY BOYS show and was a member of Disco-Tex and the Sex-o-Lettes, a shitty disco band I was briefly fascinated by decades ago because of the stupid name.
Of course the women in their lives get sidelined. Frankie falls in love with an assertive woman (Renee Marino) and then goes on tour and pretty much forgets to mention her in the story until it’s time to get a divorce. But she does contribute by convincing him to spell his fake last name ‘Valli’ because “y’s a bullshit letter.”
Of course there’s a mob element. They’re not killing people or anything, their worst depicted crime is a comically inept safe heist in which Frankie stands lookout and sings a song as a warning that a cop is coming. But they take pride in their frequent prison stints. When they show up the screws seem happy to see them and address them like old friends. One bid is for breaking into a church to play the organ and take advantage of the acoustics. I don’t believe that story anymore than the one about Vin Diesel becoming an actor because he got caught breaking into a theater to vandalize it. But they’re both good stories.
So they’re not exactly made men, but the gangsters from the neighborhood protect them. Christopher Walken (who also has somehow never worked with Clint before) plays Gyp DeCarlo, a lovable Don who likes Frankie because his rendition of “My Mother’s Eyes” made him cry. So he intervenes when dumbass Tommy gets them into trouble with a loan shark. The power of art.
I like how much of the story is about negotiating. It’s about the difficulties of four dudes getting along over the years. Everybody’s always threatening to start their own group, and everybody has genuine grievances. But Tommy has the best reason to get kicked out and Frankie the best chance of success on his own, so it’s touching when Frankie chooses to stick with his old friend and go on a more difficult path. Trying to live by a neighborhood code of loyalty and responsibility.
There’s a scene early on where one of the guys’ girlfriends says she wants to go see THE BLOB, and I thought it would be funny if she said REVENGE OF THE CREATURE, since Clint Eastwood is in that (also it would be closer to historically accurate, I think the scene takes place before either movie came out). But actually Clint finds a better way to reference his early career.
It’s a great moment that’s not necessarily what the movie’s all about, but it caught my interest. The group records “Walk Like a Man,” a kind of macho song about keeping one’s head up despite his woman “telling dirty lies to my friends.” Tommy complains that he doesn’t understand what it’s about, and the two Bobs try to explain it. The song continues over a montage during which we see a quick shot of young Clint on TV, in an episode of Rawhide I believe. Is this just a cute Hitchcock type director cameo, or does Clint understand that his persona represents an ideal of masculinity for many of us? I’m not saying this is good or bad, but westerns and later action movies gave many boys and men our idea of what it means to “walk like a man.” And then, over time, Clint’s evolution as an artist and as a person paralleled or inspired our own growth, I hope.
But to be frankly honest I think these guys as depicted in the movie are a little on the meathead side. There’s a tragic section of the movie where he finds out one of Frankie’s daughters has run off and become a druggie, so he comes home to deal with it. He uses his street connections to find her, meets with her in a diner like his mobster friends might do. It turns out sometimes big girls do cry-y-y. He apologizes for his absence in her life, has good advice for her and tries to connect with her through their shared passion for music.
Their close relationship after this point is not shown, just mentioned in a line of dialogue, as if to drive the point home that it’s too little too late, you dumb motherfucker. You didn’t walk like a man in the fatherhood department. You blew it.
There’s also an interesting racial component to the story that the movie only comments on by not commenting on it. Frankie’s voice drives people crazy because he sings with soul for a white kid. We know this because when Frankie and Bob shop their demo around some record company guy doesn’t believe they’re The Four Seasons because he thinks that’s “a colored group.” (They also get turned away by a label that only does “colored music,” but fortunately they don’t cry reverse racism.) Yet, from what we see in the movie, they may not even know any black people at all. They don’t grow up with them in the neighborhood, they don’t play music with them, they don’t watch them perform. Black people are in the movie, but always, I’m pretty sure, as background extras. The people sitting at the table behind them during a conversation. These kids are profoundly affected by black music and culture, but don’t seem to notice. They just stayed in their world and sang their songs. In 1990 they got into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame alongside The Four Tops, The Platters and Holland, Dozier and Holland, among others. It’s an interesting story.
I’m not saying I’m gonna buy the blu-ray or nothin, but I don’t get why people hated this one so much. Did they notice that Brett Ratner was an executive producer and hold that against it? Were they thinking of JERKY BOYS? What is the deal?
Another good job by Clint. Lay off JERSEY BOYS it’s pretty good. Come on fellas.
VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.