Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.
Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys made me almost unbearably nostalgic, but not in the ways you might think. The film itself is almost an anti-nostalgia piece, which is really some kind of achievement considering the material that it’s based on. Whereas the stage play’s success was based largely on its ability to tap into its audience’s nostalgia for the early 1960s (often at the expense of story and character), Eastwood resists the urge for easy sentiment and elegy at every turn. Appropriately for a director whose career has always been defined by looking forward and seeking out new challenges, his Jersey Boys plays up the stage production’s Rashomon-esque shifting points of view to imply that dwelling on the past is a pointless endeavor (since we all shape it to our own needs and desires), and celebrating it is an exercise in self-indulgence.
A more conventional director would undoubtedly have given the movie a bright, colorful palette to draw the audience in and revel in nostalgia, but Eastwood withholds this kind of traditional satisfaction until the very end of the film. Instead of going for warm, inviting tones, he employs the same kind of desaturated look he and cinematographer Tom Stern have been developing since Mystic River, a sort of black-and-white-in-color approach that makes all the actors look like they’ve been rubbing their faces in ashtrays. It’s an aggressive, bold choice, but the right one for this movie – and for all the reasons that other directors would never make it. The visual style works against the material in a way that deepens and improves upon it; the banter between the characters that seemed corny and lightweight on stage reveals new, darker shadings here in line with Eastwood’s preoccupations going back to the Play Misty for Me and High Plains Drifter days.
During that period, Eastwood’s initial phase as a director, he was obsessed with challenging and exploring the commonly held cultural beliefs that had made him a star; he seemed tireless in his investigation of American masculinity and in his desire to find new ways of looking at what it meant to be a man (and what it meant to be a man interacting with strong women – to this day Clint still doesn’t get the credit for having given actresses some of the best women’s roles in 1970s and ’80s genre films). The key moment in Jersey Boys that relates to this theme comes when the band is shown creating one of their biggest hits, the appropriately titled “Walk Like a Man”; the four band mates argue over the meaning of the song, but Eastwood doesn’t really privilege any particular point of view. Instead he spends the rest of the movie showing how these four men try – and mostly fail, though broken friendships and marriages – to live up to their own and their culture’s ideas of what a man should be.
The stage musical presented the characters’ misogyny as a kind of cute affectation and allowed the audience to vicariously participate in it, justifying (and to a certain degree celebrating) the guys’ behavior by implying that it was simply emblematic of the period. Because Eastwood is pushing against nostalgia and all the shopworn assumptions that come with it, there’s a harsher edge to the domestic scenes in his film than there was to the same material on stage; there’s also an admirable lack of glamorization in the scenes depicting the guys’ debauchery when they first hit it big. There isn’t a scene in the movie where any of these men relate to women – not their lovers, not their wives, not their daughters – in a way that indicates they have any understanding of or even real concern for them. If understanding and respecting a woman is one of the key components of being a man – and we know from The Gauntlet, Tightrope, Sudden Impact, Heartbreak Ridge, and dozens of other films that Eastwood thinks it is – the Four Seasons are all complete disasters at it.
Then again, they’re not that great at relating to other men either – ultimately Frankie Valli becomes another of Clint Eastwood’s alienated loners, his oldest and most treasured friendships eroded by money and ego. Like John Ford, the greatest of all American directors – to whose throne Clint is, to my mind, the rightful heir – Eastwood has always been interested in the core American problem of the tension between individual liberty and the needs of the community, and the theme comes up again in Jersey Boys. It’s an issue Eastwood has spent decades trying to wrap his head around, and like all great artists his point of view is in a constant state of evolution. A film like The Outlaw Josey Wales – the story of a vengeful widower forming an ever-growing community with men and women of diverse races, backgrounds, and experiences – is as moving and thoughtful an affirmation of man’s ability for reconciliation and collective productivity as has ever been put on screen. The Dirty Harry movies, Pale Rider, and others consider heroes who are staunch individualists entrusted with protecting communities to which they can never truly belong. Then there are Unforgiven and Mystic River, two of the darkest, most pessimistic studio films in the history of cinema, portraits of an America in which neither the individual nor the community is worth saving, and any kind of human fellowship is doomed.
The story of the rise and fall of a singing group is perfectly tailored to Eastwood’s obsession with this issue, as it allows him to explore it in microcosm and allows him to ask not only what makes a man, but what makes a group? Is the measure of a man’s worth how well he collaborates with others, or how firmly he retains his own individuality? The film’s story consists largely of a series of decisions made by Frankie Valli and his friends in which at every turn the question of individual desires versus the good of the band is raised – and, in true Eastwood fashion, the answer isn’t always simple or obvious. It’s also explored with more force and complexity here than it was on stage, probably due to Eastwood’s intense personal investment in the theme; it’s hard not to see the film (and many others in the director’s career) as a sort of metaphor for filmmaking, the ultimate endeavor in which the vision of a strong individual force (the director) must find balance and harmony with that of a larger community (the crew).
The remarkable thing about Jersey Boys is that Eastwood draws all of these notions out of the original material without fundamentally changing it; he’s pulled off a sort of cinematic alchemy here similar to what he did with The Bridges of Madison County, another movie taken from a hugely popular but somewhat simplistic source that Clint transformed into high art. It’s a directorial skill that few have anymore, but that was an essential part of the job back in the 1940s and ’50s, when auteurs like Michael Curtiz, Douglas Sirk, and Vincente Minnelli could infuse routine studio assignments with profoundly personal statements. And this is where Jersey Boys made me nostalgic: seeing the way in which Eastwood works around the edges, molding a popular source to his own thematic and cinematic concerns, made me miss a kind of filmmaking for which I wasn’t even around when it first existed – the filmmaking of Victor Fleming, of Budd Boetticher, and of Clint’s mentor, Don Siegel. Eastwood is perhaps the last grand master of this tradition, which makes his astonishing productivity (he’s already got another movie, American Sniper, in the can) as valuable as it is impressive. I can’t think of a single other director like him in the modern era; no one else has been able to build such a rich body of personal work across such a wide variety of films over such a lengthy period of time. I’m not convinced that Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons are national treasures in the way that Jersey Boys asserts, but I’m damn well convinced that Clint Eastwood is.