Bombast: Jersey Boys
“I’m hearing it sky-blue, you’re giving me brown.” This is producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) in the recording booth, addressing a group of session musicians who will eventually be known as Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. It also anticipates the case against Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the jukebox musical that opened on Broadway in 2005 and is still running today. The film, like the show, dramatizes Valli and friends’ journey from the mean streets of Belleville to the top of the charts, but any doubt that this is an Eastwood film should be vanquished by the drained, drab palette of the early scenes, which recall the juvenile delinquent milieu of his mentor Don Siegel’s black-and-white Crime in the Streets. Working with Tom Stern, his cinematographer since 2002’s Blood Work, Eastwood has shot Jersey Boys in his favored color scheme, in which no tone appears that you might not find on a particularly weather-beaten cigar store Indian. This is the first full-on musical that Eastwood has directed—though both Honkytonk Man (82) and Bird (88) were musician bios—but Vincente Minnelli it ain’t.
It would appear that Eastwood’s Jersey Boys wasn’t the Jersey Boys that America wanted. I saw it in an otherwise empty theater on a Monday night in Glen Cove, New York, and box-office reports appear to bear out my anecdotal experience. (It is worth remembering that before the High School Musicals, 2008’s Mamma Mia!, and 2012’s Les Misérables, the movie musical was considered a surefire money loser, and had been for almost 35 years.) In this particular case, I am not inclined to blame a film’s under-performance wholly on the imbecility of the philistine public. The movie has a certain amount of bounce in the rise-to-power chapters, when it’s narrated by each of the Four Seasons in turn, but John Lloyd Young, the film’s Valli, who originated the role on Broadway, doesn’t exactly ooze charisma on the big screen, and his deficiency becomes glaring in the section of the film which takes place after the band’s breakup.
That Valli does not come across as particularly knowable or likeable isn’t, however, necessarily at odds with Eastwood’s apparent intentions. The movie’s grand finale surrounds the group’s 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Reunited to perform, wearing old-age makeup presumably provided by the same cut-rate supplier who fitted Leo DiCaprio with dewlaps in 2011’s J. Edgar, the group spin in unison on the stage and are suddenly, miraculously young again—the effect summons unwelcome memories of the music video for Billy Joel’s “The Longest Time.” This is followed by a credits-crawl full-cast blowout that trots through a medley of the hits. And yet, rather than this perfunctory attempt at sending a toe-tapping crowd off on a high note, what sticks in the memory on the way to the car is the number that immediately precedes the induction hullabaloo, Valli rolling out his 1967 hit “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” in front of a crowd for the first time, particularly the way one lyric hangs in the air after the swing of the band has dropped away: “You’re just too good to be true…”
The elements of Jersey Boys that seem most to engage Eastwood—who is working from a screenplay by the show’s originators, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice—are those of “…too good to be true.” Eastwood the director has long concerned himself with pulling back the curtain on the backstage operations of myth creation, bringing the privileged perspective of one who, as an actor, was fashioned into a folkloric hero almost from the get-go. This is an important aspect of J. Edgar, which shows how the eponymous head of the FBI sold the upright, tough “G-Man” to the American public as a counter-myth to the Tragic Gangster, and of Invictus (09), which has Morgan Freeman’s Nelson Mandela creating a fable of South African national unity on the basis of a victory in the 1995 Rugby World Cup. (It’s a solid and often touching movie, but kept from being something more by the absence of any lingering doubt as to the worth of unity in the face of still-present crushing economic inequality, or any mention of the questions raised as to the validity of the South African victory.)
One of the most memorable moments in Jersey Boys is a CG crane shot that scales the face of the Brill Building, once the epicenter of the music industry in New York City, the vignettes visible through each window offering glimpses of something like the pop music industry’s factory floor. Eastwood is uniquely qualified to direct Jersey Boys because he has some firsthand experience of this scene, for his sideline in music goes back as far as the LP Rawhide’s Clint Eastwood Sings Cowboy Favorites, released in 1959 on the Cameo Records label of Philadelphia. (An overview of Eastwood’s persistent career-long crooning may be found here.) Eastwood’s Rawhide character Rowdy Yates makes a brief appearance on a television set in Jersey Boys, a tacit acknowledgement by Eastwood that he was part of the same entertainment-industrial complex that The Four Seasons were participant in. (“You talk like an expert,” a flirtatious female says to cocksure Rowdy, and certainly bow-legged Eastwood heeds Valli’s high-pitched commandment to “Walk Like a Man.”) Later, when Valli & Co. take the Rock Hall stage to accept an award for singing songs, many of which advertise a romantic bliss that we do not see evident in any of their actual lives, I had a brief flash of Adam Beach’s laurel-festooned Iwo Jima flag-raiser Cpl. Ira Hayes in 2006’s Flags of Our Fathers saying “I can’t take them calling me a hero…”
No such crisis of conscience occurs in Jersey Boys. And though moments like that Rowdy cameo are so much catnip for the auteurist critics who’ve gradually gathered to Eastwood through the decades, beginning with Tom Allen (New York) and Dave Kehr (Chicago) in the U.S. and Pierre Rissient in Paris, such flourishes are few and far between. When the film turns to Valli’s relationship to his wayward teenaged daughter, Francine (Freya Tingley), its depiction of the late Sixties Village street scene is so wholly inauthentic and plasticine that I half expected a visit to The Pigeon-Toed Orange Peel from Siegel’s 1968 Coogan’s Bluff. Suffice it to say that Jersey Boys is a quite uneven movie with flashes of something better. I suspect that its flaws come from excessive fidelity to the Brickman/ Elice text rather than from its departures, but of course this view won’t be shared by rabid anti-Eastwoodites, ever eager to see the big man stumble or, say, interrogate an empty chair. Despite decades of deconstructing his own legend, Eastwood remains a monumental figure, and as such nothing less will do that to burnish or topple him.
Mrs. Eastwood & Company
Speaking of “Print the legend”: almost certainly the oddest Eastwood-related project to come along since he won his second Best Director Academy Award for Million Dollar Baby in 2004 isn’t 2010’s Hereafter, but rather one in which he had no direct authorial involvement, a serial narrative of which he floats on the periphery, a tall, gaunt figure flashing his boyish grin dutifully, or a famous, gravelly voice on the speakerphone. I am talking about Mrs. Eastwood & Company, what I believe from limited acquaintance with the genre to be a more-than-usually-dreadful reality TV program from the Bunim/Murray Productions sausage grinder, 10 episodes of which aired on E! in summer of 2012.
The brand name is “Eastwood,” but the Pale Rider is scarcely seen; instead the focus is on Dina Eastwood, the former news anchor who he married in 1996, and her household in Carmel-by-the-Sea. The supporting players include Morgan Eastwood, Clint and Dina’s 15-year-old daughter; Francesca Eastwood, Clint’s daughter with the actress who played the “cut-up whore” from Unforgiven, Frances Fisher; and the group Overtone, a kind-of South African Rockapella who Dina acquired during the shooting of Invictus—their harmonies are drizzled all over the soundtrack—and imported to Northern California, and for whom she functions as the manager.
A typical episode is comprised of an imposed conflict—Dina wants to get a belly-button piercing; Francesca falls in love with a designer handbag that her drippy, talentless, potato-faced photographer boyfriend wants to destroy for an insipid photo shoot—which is solved by the time the credits roll, with mother, daughters, or both learning a valuable takeaway lesson. Eastwood appeared nowhere on the promotional materials for the show, though he does pop up in a couple of episodes, explaining his pro-gay stance (“…we’re Libertarians…”) over dinner at the Mission Ranch Hotel, the restaurant he owns in Carmel, or attending the wedding of an Overtone member, and giving terse advice on having a happy marriage. “It takes one time to do that,” Eastwood says of adjusting to domestic life. “To get fully tranquilized.”
Mrs. Eastwood & Company
Someone wasn’t sufficiently tranquilized to maintain the Eastwood marriage. Scarcely a year after the official portrait of the Eastwood family had been broadcast to the American public, Dina entered a rehab facility in Arizona to “receive help with depression and anxiety,” and months later she filed for divorce, citing irreconcilable differences. No less an authority than People magazine’s Raha Lewis cited Mrs. Eastwood & Company, disapproved of by Clint, as having put a strain on the marriage, though given that Dina had been shackled with a prenup, this bit of personal brand-building à la Camille Grammer in the months before a divorce seems like a smart exit strategy. I will not engage in any idle speculation as to what went wrong, though Eastwood’s any-which-way-you-can philandering, at least in his younger days, was the stuff of legend, well-documented by ever-salacious biographer Patrick McGilligan.
It cannot be said that Eastwood is indifferent to women, and fittingly his other great subject, alongside deconstructing pop mythology, is his combined awe and terror at female power, both in wrath and resilience. This begins with the 1971 “Hell hath no fury” double feature of Play Misty for Me and The Beguiled (directed by Siegel, but from a source novel suggested by Eastwood), carries through his wonderful on-screen badinage with lover Sondra Locke in six films bookended by 1976’s The Outlaw Josey Wales and 1983’s Sudden Impact, and continues right down to outright melodramas like The Bridges of Madison County (95), Million Dollar Baby, and Changeling (08). “[I]magine what Martin Scorsese could have done with the material,” a recent Eastwood takedown larded with the meaningless phrase “overrated” and altogether too worthless to link to said of Jersey Boys, and in this particular instance the hypothetical may be worth asking. But imagine Scorsese—who, incidentally, greatly admires Eastwood—evidencing anything like the same interest in the opposite sex, even if Eastwood’s interest hasn’t always been benevolent. On screen as in life, Eastwood’s relations with women have been fraught to say the very least—of the Four Seasons who share the spotlight in Jersey Boys, it’s tellingly Vincent Piazza’s neighborhood hustler and habitual lothario Tommy DeVito whom Eastwood seems to have the most feeling for. “Love?” says DeVito. “I’ll be honest; I never knew what that was.”
Love aside, sex by itself can get pretty tricky. Which brings us to the other big recent news in Eastwood studies: two weeks ago, Warner Home Video’s released Tightrope on Blu-ray. Eastwood vehicle Tightrope opened in theaters in August of 1984, around the time that the star’s divorce from his first wife, Maggie Johnson, was becoming final. In the film, Eastwood plays recently divorced New Orleans police detective Wes Block. Adding to the film à clef bread-crumb trail, Block is doting father to two young girls—the elder of the two played by Alison Eastwood, Clint’s second child with Johnson. This suburban life comprises Block’s daytime existence, but by night, Block—presumably so named because of his tendency to compartmentalize—is out prowling the seedy precincts of New Orleans’s Tenderloin district, looking for an at-large woman killer who’s been preying on sex workers. (In these nocturnal scenes, then-current Eastwood house DP Bruce Surtees pushes stock like crazy to capture images hovering on the edge of pitch-black.)
Block is not impervious to the allure of neon and sleaze himself and, since his divorce, has let his inner freak off the leash: he stoically accepts a blow job from a familiar call girl, gets a vibrator-assisted hand-job from another, and even indulges in a little light S/M with his departmental handcuffs. When Block turns down a gay tryst with a queer trick paid off by the killer who Block is tracking—or is it the other way around?—he asks the detective “How do you know if you never tried it?” to which Block responds “Maybe I have.” (Talk about Libertarian!) “[H]ere was the biggest star in the world,” David Denby wrote of Tightrope, “implicating himself in the kind of pathologies that his earlier characters had scornfully eliminated.” (Denby is perhaps thinking of 1975’s The Eiger Sanction. God knows I usually am.)
Tightrope was the first film reviewed by J. Hoberman in the first-stringer slot at The Village Voice, stepping in for the ailing Andrew Sarris, and Hoberman speculated that the film “[was] so personal that Eastwood couldn’t sign it.” There would appear to be some credence to this. The film’s bad double-entendre-laden screenplay and direction are credited to one Richard Tuggle, a name which has a Christian Nyby-ish smell about it. As with Eastwood’s last outing as an actor, 2012’s Trouble with the Curve, credited to the star’s former AD and longtime producer Robert Lorenz, Tightrope appears to be a case of Clint subcontracting out work. (Trouble and Tightrope were made for Eastwood’s Malpaso Productions, so there can be no doubt as to who was boss on both.) Despite Tightrope’s box-office success, Tuggle only managed to accrue one other director credit, on the 1986 action-thriller Out of Bounds, starring Anthony Michael Hall. Tuggle had previously written the screenplay to 1979’s Escape from Alcatraz, Eastwood’s last appearance in front of the camera for Siegel—but while Eastwood never would’ve tried to go over the man he called “Siegelini,” Tuggle’s inexperience apparently prompted Mr. Efficiency Eastwood to side-check him out of the director’s chair.
Like William Friedkin’s Cruising a few years previous, Tightrope (a/k/a Trouble with the Perv) is an attempt at an American giallo. A more instructive point of comparison, however, is James B. Harris’s 1988 Cop, the first screen adaptation of a novel by James Ellroy, a writer fairly obsessed with the violence of men who elect themselves to protect women from violent men. (I’ve written at some length about Cop.) Like Cop, Tightrope is in dialogue with second-wave feminism, in particular the Take Back the Night movement—or at least a screenwriter’s conception of what those things were. It is a movie made up of the basic titillating material of the erotic thriller—the exquisite murders of beautiful women—but in addition to the usual implicit critique visible in the cross-section of society given in the course of a police procedural, male violence is explicitly put on trial by a feminist-identified character.
In the case of Cop, James Woods’s Sgt. Lloyd Hopkins has to contend with Lesley Ann Warren’s feminist bookstore owner Kathleen McCarthy (was someone thinking of Brian De Palma bête noir and Andrea Dworkin cohort Catharine A. MacKinnon?); in the case of Tightrope, it’s Geneviève Bujold’s grandiloquently monikered Beryl Thibodeaux, who teaches classes in women’s self-defense at the Rape Center, and who teams with Block to stop the killer and temper the detective’s own festering misogyny. Lest it be thought that Eastwood’s experiment in ally-dom was a one-off, I should note that shooting for Tightrope was underway shortly before the release of Sudden Impact, the fourth of five films in which Eastwood played “Dirty” Harry Callahan and the only of the series that he directed himself, in which Callahan finds his female counterpart in Locke’s rape victim-turned-avenging angel, whom he allows to fly free at the film’s conclusion.
Tightrope is never subtle in laying out its themes. There’s a scene of Block strolling down a courthouse corridor with a woman, never seen before or again, whose sole purpose in the movie appears to be that of dropping by to explain the title: “…there’s a darkness inside all of us . . . You, me, the man down the street. Some have it under control. The rest try to walk a tightrope between the two.” Unlike Cruising, Tightrope never suggests that cop and killer are literally one in the same, though its doppelganger theme does put me in mind of a certain exchange from 2002’s Adaptation regardless. (Charlie: “…[Y]ou explore the notion that cop and criminal are really two aspects of the same person. See every cop movie ever made for other examples of this.” Donald: “Mom called it psychologically ‘taut.’”) It is, like Jersey Boys, a movie to be consigned to the great pile of flawed Eastwood films—but Eastwood is to be valued more for his stalwart eccentricity than for his perfection. There are few around who can walk the tightrope between a populist and a personal cinema with such poise.