The neighborhood is a place of voices and memories. Like Iwo Jima, Madison County, even the confines of NASA, whispers and past murmurings seem to haunt and linger. Belleville, New Jersey, 1951, “…four guys under a street lamp.” It’s all hazy conjuring, a sense of presence and time’s persistence. It’s Clint Eastwood, each moment of his new film Jersey Boys at once being driven into the future, fame, success, regrets, while simultaneously becoming nearly a dream, a dream running simultaneously to the events it imagines. Everything is made memory the instant it happens. It isn’t exactly fantasy, not quite melancholy, not jubilation. It’s a chorus of voices and emotions.
How appropriate it is that Eastwood cites How Green Was My Valley as one of his favorite films. Like that film, his work is a dialectic of memory and time, truth and the fictions characters tell themselves. What was, and what they thought it was. In Letters from Iwo Jima we leave a dying man, through dissolve, and see him driving a road, any road, across a great expanse, death and freedom conflated. The Bridges of Madison County is framed by a drab present, the romance occurring entirely in memory. Sudden Impact’s violence is spurred by traumatic past. Jersey Boys presents us with yet another variation on this dynamic; moments and absences linger like strands. Frankie Valli leaves for the road yet again, and we’re left with a quietly haunting shot of his daughter staring out the door after him. His absence precedes her absence, one forever away, the other robbed by a tragically young death. In understanding this, we understand the film: events and memories swirling around voids, interpretations based off inherently flawed perceptions of time.
For a film that progresses more or less chronologically, it dwells in the mind like a blurred melange. There are the performances, the TV appearances, the private moments of despair or passion. Like Space Cowboys’ opening, in which Firefox and Every Which Way But Loose make their appearance, we even get a mini-histoire(s) du Clint. A shot rises vertically past recording studio windows, a country singer in one, a jazz musician in the next. A little later, Eastwood himself makes an appearance, his youthful Rawhide Rowdy Yates centering a sequence of varying levels of sexual discovery and familial responsibility. It’s bizarre and almost perverse, Eastwood’s complicated and often dubious past with women cycling through rapid fire. Another voice joins the chorus, another memory and interpretation: Clint Eastwood’s.
The characters suffer because they are unable to reconcile the strands of their lives. Tommy Devito can’t leave home, dragging the neighborhood with him on the road. Valli, alternately, can’t get back. Nick Massi, like Valli, wants to return home, but his is more a tale of a voice ignored and subjugated. Bob Gaudio is the ambiguous mystery of the film. Perhaps he is the Artist, at turns savior and separating force. As he tells us in the film’s final moments, he doesn’t “…give a fuck” about the old neighborhood. He’s from wherever he is, a creative impulse.
We are greeted by these voices. First home, Devito, the neighborhood. Then art, music, Gaudio. And then critically, absence, past paved over, Massi. Remarkably, mid-Ed Sullivan-appearance, we leave the present with Massi and trip back two years, the great silences beginning their appearances. Massi’s now unchained voice carries us, and we understand, in his now undone silence, that a great quiet, concealing melancholy, has been operating within the film. Devito’s debts catch up to him, infighting begins, chairs are smashed. We’re carried back to the present, but it’s too late, silence can no longer be repressed. In one of the film’s key scenes, the band disintegrates at the home of benevolent mobster Gyp de Carlo. The air between the figures, in shots that encompass all present, looks cold, steely and grey. Valli’s voice here is no longer youthful and soft; “Sit down.” he commands, and we hear his age. Gaudio is flanked in medium shot by a drab statue. Devito’s acting out reaches its natural endpoint, with his expulsion. And finally Massi, his complaints known to us, releases them to his bandmates; having gone critically ignored, he too departs.
What then, is Valli? We haven’t heard from Valli. We’ve seen him, to be sure: early comedic interludes, sexual discovery, domestic squabbles. But our gaze at him has been denied his voice. We are left to follow his strand from the outside, akin to his daughter’s gaze earlier in the film. Like his daughter, all he really does is sing for us. It’s only after the success, after the disintegration of the band, that we pick up his world. And we find only sadness and silence. He tries desperately to guide his daughter away from disaster, located within a moving two shot, but he’s never made it back home, and the gulf cannot be bridged. She dies offscreen, and at her funeral we see Frankie for the first time, as he stares into the camera. But he doesn’t speak. Everything has become cold, snow flurries seen through a diner window.
Everything’s been hollowed out. Devito and Massi are gone, and Gaudio is now essentially unknowable, a friend but entirely in a sphere outside of Valli’s silence, toiling away on his own work. And then there’s a song, received incredulously: “I just buried a child.” This song, however, is critical. Eastwood plays a strange and daring gambit here: “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” doesn’t become a last-act comeback like some shit out of Walk the Line. It becomes voice, and the first time Valli has spoken to us. On stage, Eastwood cuts twice to Valli singing directly into the camera. It’s almost a deliverance from the past, from this foggy world of memories, as it’s immediately followed by a nighttime sky with a title card reading “Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction 1990”. Three old men, caked in spectacularly fake-looking makeup that echoes Eastwood’s previous film J. Edgar, step out of a limo. Devito, naturally, arrives by cab.
The voices and music return. Each member speaks directly to us for the last time, lights flashing behind them, almost rendering their individual compositions abstract. Is it twilight? Paradise? Everything should be reconciled, the voices should give us closure, but how could that ever be the case? Instead the strands go their separate ways, emphasizing division (and some comedy, this is Eastwood after all). So what’s left?
Well, why not fantasy? “Four guys under a streetlamp.” The vision promised by the trailer and poster appears, expressionistically against deep black. It transforms, becoming a musical number, the entire cast getting their moment to dance and sing. And then it freezes, figures stuck in place, facial expressions strained under gasps for breath. Cut to black, and we hear the actual Four Seasons (only appearing once before in the film, critically, in a sequence between Valli and his daughter). What to make of this? It’s ambiguous, perhaps his most inscrutable ending since True Crime. Is it fantasy? It’s wistful, beautiful. Tinged by the unreconcilable. You could accuse it of wish fulfillment or deliberately ignoring the prior melancholy in favor of easy release. This is Clint Eastwood. It doesn’t scrub away the past, it throws the entire film into a new light. What was already dynamic is made nearly, or perhaps totally, inscrutable. This is Eastwood’s essence, a sense of unresolvable conflicts, internal and external. The answers do not come readily, and likely, never arrive at all.