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Posts tagged ‘Clint Eastwood’

Jersey Boys

Four SeasonsThere were only two other people in the cinema when I went to see Jersey Boys this week, a mere five days after its UK opening. Having received reviews ranging from cool to lukewarm, Clint Eastwood’s transfer of the Four Seasons musical from stage to screen has clearly failed to capture the public imagination — unlike the original, which is still running on Broadway and in the West End.

I belong to a generation that didn’t have much time for musicals, generally speaking, but I loved the theatrical version of Jersey Boys when I saw it a couple of years ago. The music sounded as good as the records and the staging was genuinely exhilarating. So the film’s first surprise is that Eastwood hasn’t simply tried to replicate the factors that made the stage show a success: he’s gone for something halfway between a musical and a conventional biopic, which is hard to pull off.

Here are the two main drawbacks: it still feels unmistakeably theatrical, and there’s surprisingly little music. Great trouble has obviously been taken over the design of the costumes, the sets and the props, and the film’s colours and textures are carefully graded to match the period, but it hardly ever feels real. And in an effort, I guess, to avoid the accusation of having simply reproduced a jukebox musical, the director has used the music only when it functions as part of the narrative (e.g. when they’re performing “Sherry” on American Bandstand or Valli makes his comeback, singing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with a big band in a plush nightclub). Unlike Taylor Hackford’s Ray Charles film, Eastwood doesn’t rely on enhanced versions of the original recordings to underdub the actors when the group are seen performing in a club or a theatre: the performances sound as unpolished and sometimes as weedy as they would have done in real life, deprived of the support of session musicians and studio technology. I ended up quite liking that, although I suppose I’d gone in hoping for the sensation of the original mixes of “C’mon Marianne”, “Beggin'”, “Beggars Parade”, “Tell It to the Rain” or “Dawn (Go Away)” thumping out through a cinema sound system.

In its treatment of the group’s early connections to New Jersey mobsters the film is grittier than I remember the stage version being. It’s still hardly Goodfellas, and it frequently lapses into cliché and caricature, but it does have a genuinely outstanding central scene in which the rest of the group discover the extent of the tax and gambling debts they’ve been landed with by Tommy DeVito, their founding member; he is forced out by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, while Nick Massi quits in disgust. In reality Massi left in 1965, after their first run of chart success, while DeVito’s ousting came six years later, at around the time they were dropped by Philips, when the hits had dried up. But it works in terms of dramatic truth, and the showdown exposes the sort of conflicts that anyone who has ever been in a band, at whatever level, will probably recognise. That scene also highlights the real excellence of the central performances by Vincent Piazza (DeVito), Michael Lomenda (Massi), Erich Bergen (Gaudio) and especially by John Lloyd Young, who delivers a nuanced and mostly sympathetic portrayal of Valli.

After DeVito’s departure, Valli and Gaudio took shared ownership of the group; the fact that they are named as the film’s executive producers probably guarantees a degree of both authenticity and airbrushing. There is no mention of the line-up (featuring the gifted lead singer/drummer Gerry Polci) that joined Valli for the chart rebirth with “Who Loves You”, “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” and “Silver Star” in the mid-70s (and it’s a bit dismaying that the first thing the audiences hears, before the titles, is a pianist infuriatingly misvoicing a vital chord in the great intro to “December 1963”).

If you’re a fan of the group, the film worth catching while it’s still around, which probably won’t be long. It’s hardly Eastwood’s finest hour as a director, and he doesn’t quite find the thing that would compensate for the missing vibrancy of the stage show, but of course it will send you back home to listen to some enduringly great records.

* The photograph of (left to right) Tommy DeVito, Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi is taken from the booklet to Jersey Beat: The Music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, compiled by Bill Inglot and released by Rhino in 2007.

 

The essence of Bird

BirdIt’s 25 years since I made the decision to avoid Clint Eastwood’s Charlie Parker biopic. I’d been sent the Bird album, and the discovery that the director had found it necessary to tamper with Parker’s original recordings in order to provide his film with a technically adequate soundtrack made me angry. It seemed outrageous. How could anyone find it acceptable to strip away the piano playing of John Lewis, the bass playing of Tommy Potter and the drumming of Max Roach and replace them with other musicians playing along to the sound of Parker’s alto saxophone in a modern recording studio?  Eastwood may have been motivated by a genuine desire to pay homage to a genius of modern music, but what he and the film’s musical director, Lennie Niehaus, committed was an offence against the idea that these recordings — like any jazz recordings by an ensemble, come to that — are works of collective endeavour to which each individual part makes an essential contribution. Even if the “replacement” musicians included such irreproachable bebop-era veterans as Barry Harris and Ray Brown, it was like taking the Mona Lisa and photoshopping in the Las Vegas skyline as a background instead of the Tuscan hills of the original, just because the modern digital image was sharper. Doing it for the benefit of the film was one thing; releasing the result of this tampering as the soundtrack album compounded the offence.

Earlier this week I heard Eastwood talking about the film with the singer Jamie Cullum, who is presenting a Radio 2 series called Jazz at the Movies. Cullum is one of those “celebrities” nowadays preferred by the BBC as the presenters of radio programmes on jazz, in the decidedly un-Reithian conviction that their mere presence will attract a bigger audience. Such great broadcasters as Charles Fox and Peter Clayton, men who loved jazz, knew a great deal about it, and also knew how to communicate their authority and enthusiasm, must be turning in their graves.

Needless to say, Cullum got nothing interesting out of Eastwood, least of all on the subject of the substitution of the rhythm sections on the soundtrack of Bird. (You can hear their conversation here.) It was all too easy to imagine Fox gently and politely posing a question about the seemliness of  the exercise. But, finally, it persuaded me set my old prejudice aside and watch a DVD of the film.

Like practically all biopics, it is effectively a cartoon, a simplification and an exaggeration of the real story, but not without its merits. Forest Whitaker is a wonderful actor and gives an affecting and finely nuanced performance in a demanding role, although his voice and presence (if not his physical bulk) seem a bit lightweight for Parker, who had a rich baritone speaking voice. The excellent Diane Venora plays Chan Parker, Bird’s last (common-law) wife, whose participation in the making of the film might prompt one to question the degree of objectivity with which she is portrayed. The late scene in which Parker enters a New York theatre and discovers an old rival playing rock and roll to an ecstatic audience of teenagers is a ludicrous and demeaning invention.

I was interested in the character of Audrey (played by Anna Levine), an artist with whom Parker has an affair during his visits to Los Angeles in the 1950s. She is clearly based on Julie Macdonald, who befriended the saxophonist and was with him when he received the news in March 1954 that his infant daughter Pree had died in New York, provoking a collapse that prefaced his final decline and ultimate demise 12 months later.

During his stays with Macdonald, they discussed art and classical music and probably much else; whatever else their relationship may have been about, this was also a meeting of minds. She produced at least two remarkable sculptures based on his likeness: one, a full-length study in lignum vitae, a dark hardwood, was last heard of in the ownership of Robert Reisner, who had promoted Parker in New York clubs; the other, pictured at the top of this piece, was carved from a piece of pale, lightly striated Pasadena sandstone and weighs 275lb. She sold it in 1961 to a California collector, apparently to raise the cash to buy a Ferrari, and it is currently in the possession of William Dickson, a retired Edinburgh architect who is now a photographer and a collector of post-war jazz artefacts and memorabilia. Three years ago I wrote a feature about the piece in the Guardian, having gone up to Scotland to see it, and it is through Dickson’s kind permission that his photograph is reproduced here. Bizarrely, given its great importance and direct relationship with such a historic figure, it has never been on public exhibition.

Macdonald took her inspiration from Egyptian heads of the 15th dynasty, which she and Parker had looked at together, and Yoruba carvings of the 14th to the 16th century. In my view she evokes more of her subject’s complex and profound essence than the director of Bird, for all his unquestionably good intentions, could capture in two and a half hours of celluloid. And I’m afraid I still can’t forgive Eastwood for erasing the sound of those great musicians with whom Parker created his masterpieces.