Considering as a whole of the soon-to-be thirty-eight films directed by Clint Eastwood, this latest could easily seem to be more of a departure than usual.
Just so we’re clear, there actually is a precedent for a Clint Eastwood musical.
One of the great ironies of movies is that two of the ultimate tough-guy actors in American film history, maybe THE two — Clint and Lee Marvin — only ever acted against each other in a musical, 1969’s PAINT YOUR WAGON. It isn’t one of the great spectacles of the genre, but it does provide the unlikely event of a Lee Marvin vocal solo, and then a Lee Marvin vs. Clint Eastwood duet, and hey, here’s Clint singing about nature:
Clint has always been a music enthusiast, as a pianist and jazz singer, and while he isn’t the most dynamic vocalist in the world, it’s a fun novelty when it does happen. For ANY WHICH WAY YOU CAN, the second comedy Clint made with Clyde the orangutan, Clint got to team up with Ray Charles for the single:
More recently, he rasped the theme song to 2008’s GRAN TORINO, which I still think is charming and fun.
More importantly, music is a lesser-discussed leitmotif of Clint’s long career as a filmmaker. His first film as director, PLAY MISTY FOR ME, finds Clint in the role of a radio DJ in California. The title is a request he gets from a female admirer. “Misty” is a jazz standard, famously performed by Johnny Mathis, a favorite of Clint’s.
One of Clint’s greatest directorial triumphs, 1988’s BIRD, about legendary saxophone player Charlie Parker, was not only a well-made biopic, unfliching and meticulously performed and executed, but it was also Clint’s full-on love letter to jazz music.
One of Clint’s most under-valued films as both actor and director was 1982’s HONKYTONK MAN, a small-scale period piece in which he plays a country-western singer on the trail to Nashville. One of the films closest to Clint’s heart, his son Kyle, now a respected jazz musician himself, plays the young boy in the story.
In 1984’s raucous CITY HEAT, Clint leaves his buddy Burt Reynolds in the middle of a huge brawl just so he can play the piano. He also plays piano onscreen in 1993’s IN THE LINE OF FIRE.
While it isn’t one of his better films, 1997’s MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL serves in part as an extended tribute to Savannah native and piano-playing jazzman Johnny Mercer, another Eastwood favorite. The movie is also a nice (and rare) acting showcase for his daughter Alison.
In his role as composer, Clint’s scores for MYSTIC RIVER, MILLION DOLLAR BABY, CHANGELING, HEREAFTER, and J. EDGAR are highlights of those films, whatever else you think of them. (A couple are better than others, I will admit.)
All of that is to say that it’s not entirely crazy that Clint’s newest film as director is a film adaptation of the stage musical JERSEY BOYS.
But it is a little bit crazy. For one thing, Clint Eastwood has one of the richest and broadest filmographies, in the way of subject matter, of any major American director outside of maybe Hawks and Kubrick, but Broadway is decidedly not Eastwood turf. Dancing is not an Eastwood thing. I’m not sure if longtime Eastwood editor Joel Cox has even cut a full-on musical sequence. And Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, while certainly fine and pleasant, don’t seem like Clint’s type of band. Maybe I’m wrong, but I gotta ask: Is Clint’s heart really in this one?
Since I started writing about movies, I’ve written more about Clint’s movies than I have any other filmmaker’s. A while back, William Goldman claimed Clint’s career is the single best in all of movies, and I surely agree. Because, while you can debate the specific merits of each of his soon-to-be-thirty-eight films, you would be hard pressed to argue that this is not one of the most intellectually curious directors there has ever been. If he was just the mindless, expressionless acti0n star his critics once dismissed him to be, he could easily have made a long line of DIRTY HARRY knock-offs. Instead, his Westerns are more thoughtful than almost anybody else’s, his action films are more surprisingly personal than almost anybody else’s, and his dramas show an uncommon interest in people and perspectives unlike his own.
Is that why he’s doing a musical about a bunch of doo-wop singers with over-the-top falsettos? I hope so. I think the last few Eastwood efforts — INVICTUS, HEREAFTER, and J. EDGAR — show the same kind of intellectual curiosity and ability to surprise. Maybe it’s always bothered Clint that PAINT YOUR WAGON was so poorly received, and maybe this was his best shot at making a full-on musical, one of the few genres he’s never attacked as a director.
I can’t say for sure, obviously. I guess what troubles me, looking forward, is all the stuff that shouldn’t trouble me — the peripheral stuff, the uncharacteristic allowance of a reality show about his family, the TV commercial, the movie with Justin Timberlake, and the super-uncharacteristic chair incident. You don’t have to agree with everything an artist does to love their art, but some of that stuff is pretty out there. (The chair thing I can handle. The Timberlake movie… it’s still hard for me to talk about.)
Maybe I should shut up and trust in one of my artistic heroes, but if I’m being honest, I don’t really want to see a JERSEY BOYS movie — I’m just plain not at all a doo-wop enthusiast — and that’s the first time I’ve been disinterested ahead of a Clint Eastwood movie.
As of press time I still haven’t gone to see it, but I will be happy to have my reticence proven wrong. It’ll get a fair shot from me no matter what.