Despite being adapted from a hit Broadway musical based on the unlikely career of the Four Seasons, Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys doesn’t exactly radiate a pop sheen, nor does it put on much of a show. This is partially because the band, fronted by singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), has never been particularly hip, even if they’ve been responsible for a number of lasting chart-toppers over the years. There’s something distinctly old-fashioned about the Four Seasons, what you might even call square, but their songs are resilient, melodically thoughtful, and all but custom-tailored for the radio. Valli and his crew are survivors in a business that’s never been comfortable with growing old, and it’s this element of the band’s success that Eastwood connects with from the outset, himself one of the last titans of a business that rarely invites anyone to stick around.
What the director eloquently conveys throughout Jersey Boys is the sense of the work that goes into entertainment, the unglamorous and often not very fun concessions that are made in the name of having both a modicum of artistic freedom and a regular paycheck. The script and book exudes a fascination with how deals are made, both through lawyers and with a simple handshake, including the regular loans taken out by the Four Seasons’ guitarist, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), from local hoods, represented by Christopher Walken’s Gyp DeCarlo, to keep the band working. It’s DeVito and Valli’s worn-in familiarity with criminals that not only helps them secure funds to record with songwriter-producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), but also leads to their meeting with Gaudio, an introduction set up by none other than Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo), just another hustler and would-be musician in the early 1960s.
Eastwood sees the music business as no different from any other American enterprise in its unlawful beginnings, but he insists on the eventual abandonment of this original sin. As in its source material, the film switches between the different band members’ perspectives, starting with DeVito before moving on to Gaudio, bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and Valli. From the start, DeVito recognizes the escape that fame affords from a go-nowhere existence, but when the Four Seasons are hitting it big, he refuses to cut ties with the gangsters he grew up with, accruing tremendous debts from loan sharks. The film paints this as an extension of a dependence on tradition, on how business is done in small towns and homes. Jersey Boys is never overtly political, yet Eastwood traces the pathology of fiscal irresponsibility in the otherwise rich, rooted in an obsession with clout, authenticity, and dubious entitlement.
Early on, there’s a memorable shot inside Valli’s parent’s house of a clock that features images of Frank Sinatra and the Pope to either side of it, and the not-so-subtle inference is that of the pop musician being raised to holy heights. Both artists and priests depend on the air of divinity, of being miraculously chosen, and Eastwood, himself practiced at contending with a deluded, aggrandized public image, goes about taking the righteousness and sanctity out of art, having already done the same to religion in Hereafter. He similarly scrutinizes the artistic temperament, the self-centric schedule that fame, debt, and the process of making music demands, the personal toll of which is taken into account via Valli’s relationship with his daughter, Francine, played by Elizabeth Hunter and Freya Tingley most prominently. What the director not so quietly pleads for here is an adopted ideological sobriety, seeing the exhausting labor that goes into the song and dance. When we see Valli shuffling between ballroom and dinner-club gigs, there’s no sense of embarrassment or a fall from grace, just a man utilizing what he has to make things right, something he conflictingly also learned from his mobbed-up youth.
Though frequently funny in its zippy dialogue and sharp one-liners, Jersey Boys isn’t much of a musical, only letting the bombast of the original show burst out as the credits begin to roll. Still, Eastwood’s direction remains stridently assured from minute one, even if the script is never quite as consistent. There’s a tighter, clearer film routing around inside Jersey Boys, but for however messy this overextended and oddly compelling work feels from moment to moment, the end result evokes the life of working artists without sentimentality or undue grandeur; great talent is given total respect, but it isn’t seen as the lynchpin to any zeitgeist. Taking on the popular genre of the musical biopic, Eastwood turns an easy hit into a strange, hard-nosed, and quite personal rumination on making talent last despite the pitfalls of collaboration, money, and even art, finding a credo and kinship in a band that built a steady career where so many others sought out hollow glory and unchecked privilege.