It's the time of the Seasons for Clint Eastwood

Director Clint Eastwood didn't like 1960s rock 'n' roll, but there was something about Frankie Valli (right) that appealed to him.
Director Clint Eastwood didn't like 1960s rock 'n' roll, but there was something about Frankie Valli (right) that appealed to him.
Posted: June 20, 2014

SOMETIMES, the best approach to adapting a musical to the screen is the most obvious one, "Jersey Boys" director Clint Eastwood suggested recently.

That is, dance with the date that brought you - the actors and creators who made the show a hit in the first place. Treat the project with respect and loving care. Open up the drama a bit, but don't mess with a good thing.

Sharing the traumatic, tuneful rise, fall and rise again of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, "Jersey Boys" is the most successful of the so-called jukebox musicals scored with the subjects' own hits, in this case "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Dawn," "Rag Doll" and lots more. And the show's still going strong on Broadway and in touring companies eight years after it opened.

But a not-so-funny thing happened on the way to making the film version. Producers who'd bought the movie rights took it first to Sony Pictures, attached with a director (Jon Favreau) and screenwriter (John Logan of "Hugo," "Rango," "Skyfall" and "Lincoln" fame) who felt compelled to reinvent the wheel. They reshaped the story into four sections, each narrated by a different member of the singing group. That "Rashomon"-like concept came to naught, eventually.

Eastwood was then invited to look at the project after it shifted to his home-base studio, Warner Bros. "I hadn't seen the play but had heard a lot about it over the years," he shared recently. And yeah, this music-lovin' actor/director, now a ripe, young 84, was champin' at the bit to make a full-blown movie musical.

"I've done movies on country music ["Honkeytonk Man"], jazz ["Bird"] and pop music [his DJ-focused, 1971 debut as a director, "Play Misty for Me"]."

Eastwood had also sung - uh, not so well - in the 1969 film adaptation of "Paint Your Wagon." He plays a mean piano and sired a well-respected jazz bassist/composer, son Kyle Eastwood.

Yeah, the guy's got music in his blood.

A movie is born

Before "Jersey Boys," Eastwood had been "entertaining" doing a remake of "A Star Is Born" with Beyonce Knowles. He pointedly cites the 1937 "Fredric March/Janet Gaynor original" as a favorite, not the Judy Garland/James Mason nor Barbra Streisand/Kris Kristofferson remakes.

But when a suitable male lead could not be procured within Beyonce's window of opportunity, that project was shoved to the back burner.

Not one to pull punches, Eastwood allowed he was "never particularly fond of the music of the [1960s] rock era" from whence the Four Seasons sprang. "But the novelty songs they did - 'Big Girls Don't Cry' and 'Walk Like a Man' - were a cut above most rock 'n' roll stuff . . . And 'Can't Take My Eyes Off You' is a classic song. It would have been a classic of the '40s or '50s or '30s or any time in history. And all of their stuff is very energetic music and great fun."

"Only in Hollywood," mused Eastwood, do producers invest in a radically reshaped new script for a movie musical "when there's a script that's already a hit," in this case the original Broadway treatment for "Jersey Boys" by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice.

"I looked at that and liked it very much. Then I saw three different stage versions in New York, San Francisco and Las Vegas, saw all these wonderful actors and thought, 'What a nice project to be doing.' "

Also warming him to the show, he confessed with a grin, the "Jersey Boys" audience he communed with in New York City "gave me a standing ovation when I got up to go to the bathroom. The first and only time that's ever happened."

The right Seasoning

Eastwood wound up casting most principal parts from show casts he'd seen - including the original Broadway Frankie Valli, John Lloyd Young - plus Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi and "Bob Gaudio's personal pick" to play himself, Erich Bergen.

Only Vincent Piazza, a Villanova University dropout best known from "Boardwalk Empire" (as Lucky Luciano), is a "Jersey Boys" cast novice, playing the group's strong-willed and self-destructive founder, Tommy DeVito.

For added seasoning and box-office allure, Eastwood brought in Christopher Walken to play the group's Mafia-don protector, Gyp DeCarlo. Scripters Brickman and Elice happily built up the part, some, Brickman told me. They also would carve out more screen time for the persona of the Four Seasons' overtly gay record producer/songwriter Bob Crewe, played on film by Mike Doyle.

And, to comic effect, they shared more of the juvenile delinquent stunts the guys were into before music saved their lives.

The scriptwriters also were delighted with how their director creatively amplified imagery and storytelling during song renderings. "Onstage, the spotlight and a good performance will keep a viewer focused for two and a half minutes," Brickman said. "On screen, you need to elaborate, show us more."

Demonstrating Eastwood's respect for the Four Seasons' music, all performances were captured live with a band actively tooting behind the guys, either on a bandstand, in the recording studio or hidden behind a curtain.

"For 'Bird' [the saga of jazz sax great Charlie Parker], I'd mixed live performances with vintage backing tracks to replicate the period sound," Eastwood clued. "But for 'Jersey Boys' all the musical performances were absolutely live. That's tougher on the production crew but frankly easier for me and the actors. And much better than trying to lip-synch to prerecorded tracks, which always comes out looking phony, don't you think?"

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