Released in November on DVD and Blu-ray and the first of two Clint Eastwood-directed films in 2014 (along with the upcoming “American Sniper”), “Jersey Boys” is Eastwood’s gayest film since, well, the director’s last movie, 2011’s “J. Edgar.” Eastwood, who has a history of extreme productivity as an artist, directing two movies a year in seven different individual years throughout his over 40-year career as a filmmaker, is here adapting the jukebox musical originally written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice for a 2005 Broadway run that resulted in four Tony Awards. The show and film track the 1950s beginnings and subsequent 1960s rise in popularity and rather slight disintegration of the band the Four Seasons, which was composed of lead singer Frankie Valli (played both in the film and onstage by John Lloyd Young), lead guitarist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), using songs from the real band’s catalogue. It’s rather frivolous and insubstantial subject matter—the Four Seasons’ music isn’t thought of very highly and the drama surrounding the politics of the band, professionally and personally, is pretty unremarkable and low-key as far as these things go—but Eastwood’s subtle and understated style is an unexpectedly fitting match for the material, not taking it too seriously while locating the important context and vitality in this story of the blossoming of youth culture in a transitional period of American history.
Not only does Eastwood link the Four Seasons’ earning of cultural notoriety as a part of youth culture’s growing irrepressibility, but also, rather daringly for a known and outspoken conservative Republican, as a story rife with homoeroticism. Preceded by his transcendent, sensitive depiction of J. Edgar Hoover’s lifelong love affair with Clyde Tolson in his excellent biographical “J. Edgar,” Eastwood furthers his interest in closeted but unmistakable sexual identity in “Jersey Boys,” immediately and poignantly establishing the film as one of concealed personal behaviors and secrecy. One of the first times we see Frankie he is subsumed by images of nighttime urban mischief, skirting around his hometown with friends, breaking into cars, hiding behind buildings, taking cover and whispering. We see a woman watching him in a nearby window, peeking out from behind curtains. The imagery becomes even more explicit as the film wears on, with Eastwood and DP Tom Stern using microphones as phallic symbols and developing complex spatial dynamics between the group’s members that create visual and undeniably sexual tension between the characters.
This contextualization gives the material the urgency it needs. The director emphasizes the threat of the law and police at every turn to suggest the dangerousness and trenchant impact of the cultural shifts that occurred at the time and the conservative backlash they inspired. In one particularly memorable scene, a radio DJ introduces one of the Four Seasons’ biggest hits, proclaiming a confusion whether the group is made up of women or black people, but that, whoever is performing it, the music is revolutionary and unprecedentedly exciting, with police demanding entry into the studio as he speaks. Though this may, from a broader perspective, be hyperbolic in relation to the actual effect of the group, the scene is a potent and necessary piece of Eastwood’s depiction of a changing cultural landscape. Similar is the sequence in which Bob runs into an old friend in the halls of a music studio, a man who makes flirtatious passes at all of the group’s members, leading them into a tucked-away high-society party where even the Seasons feel out of place and archaic; the gathering is clearly entrenched in an almost Warholian artistic and intellectual progressiveness that extends in spirit far past the early ‘60s time period.
The filmmaker’s expression of the momentum and fluidity of societal organizations is emboldened by the way he shoots the musical scenes in the film, which best those found in John Carney’s otherwise surprisingly good “Begin Again,” another 2014 film about the spontaneity and power of the community of art-making featuring impromptu live music performances. “Begin Again” certainly tapped into the idea of communal togetherness in a compelling way but skimped on the actual music being performed, which proved largely undercooked and indistinctive. “Jersey Boys,” however, genuinely gave me chills at various moments, using its aforementioned spatial aliveness in the performance scenes (as well as uniformly strong singing from the cast) to convey a group of people united, sometimes contentiously, always fiercely, by a passion for the work they’re doing, bonded irrevocably through the ties of art. Eastwood patiently and powerfully illustrates the effect the Four Seasons’ music has on its audience; one of the best shots of the year is a long take of Christopher Walken’s character’s face as he watches the band perform, his eyes welling up, overcome with emotion. Think of the movie as something of an outré Hollywood musical version of Abbas Kiarostami’s “Shirin.”
“Jersey Boys” is a technically and visually beautiful film but it isn’t without its stylistic derivativeness. Eastwood and Stern ape Martin Scorsese in a couple of tracking shots accompanied by to-the-camera addresses by characters breaking the fourth wall that screams “GoodFellas”—the shots are admittedly very well mounted but they never leave that other great director’s shadow. The addresses to the fourth wall, however, which are given by each of the band’s four members throughout the course of the movie, are more effective, and the culmination of their accounts and perspectives in the film’s final moments is a joyous celebration of a community and gives the proceedings purpose and dynamism in its variance of perspectives on display; Eastwood is an empathetic filmmaker but never a biased or unfair one, constantly maintaining measure and grace to his work.
True, “Jersey Boys” verges on white-boy circle-jerk in its short-shrifting of its female characters and its totally white cast, but that hetero-male-centrism is, at least in part, deflated by the movie’s expressive and thoughtful gay subtext. Shrouded in the mystery of Stern’s customary gorgeously shadowy cinematography, Eastwood’s latest story of personal and mass-identity in flux resonates in spite of its occasional setbacks.