The first hit for the Four Seasons, “Sherry,” was released in 1962. That’s 52 years ago. Fifty-two years before that, Thomas Edison was reluctantly abandoning his wax cylinder for the more popular platter-style recorded disc, and ragtime was still a national sensation.
I point this out as a reminder that one person’s nostalgia is another’s dusty history. A reminder for myself as much as for anyone, as there were aspects of the Clint Eastwood-directed Jersey Boys that struck me as very heavily tread ground—if not straight-up stock material.
First, the portrayal of Italian-Americans, particularly those in and around New York City mid-last-century: “I mean, whaddayou, a wise guy, hanh?! Fuhgedaboudit!!” I get that some of these portrayals–most, even–are intended as loving recollections of the old neighborhoods of first- or second-generation Americans. But I wonder how long it will be before this characterization will start to seem to audiences less familiar with that experience, like minstrelsy.
Second, and more pertinent to the story: the confusion of (usually professional) listeners when faced with the unusually “soulful” white singer they assumed to be black. The history of the marketing of “race music” in America is fascinating and troubling. But when treated lightly it comes across as a shallow and cliched gag, and minimizes the context that might help understand how a performer seemed distinct and exciting at the time.
These are things Jersey Boys takes for granted: that you find the rough camaraderie and the quick tempers of Italian-Americans inherently comic and that you are transported by the strong falsetto of Frankie Valli. Myself, I’m a bit worn out by the Goomba School (hell, even Scorsese, himself, seems to have moved on) and I’ve always found Frankie Valli’s voice to be uncomfortably piercing.
That being said, if you’re on board with those conditions, there are pleasures in Jersey Boys. The actors, all but one of whom also performed in the Broadway play on which the movie is based, do an excellent, almost eerie job of reproducing the sound of the Four Seasons. (Yes, they do their own singing.) Eastwood is clearly a fan, and presents ample opportunity to hear the hits.
The character portrayals of the Seasons, while not especially nuanced, are very capable. The real-life Franki Valli and his bandmate and songwriter, Bob Gaudio, are executive producers of the film; so Shakespearian complexity is not to be expected. But if the roles are fairly simple, the actors are likable. And the pace of the movie is pretty brisk. Jersey Boys clocks in at over two hours but doesn’t bog down. (The 84-year-old Eastwood may be sentimental, but he ain’t rusty.)