A sequel that’s at least as good as the original? I wouldn’t have thought that possible, but I wasn’t going to miss The Trip to Italy, the latest road trip by Steve Coogan and Rob Brydon. Their first culinary journey film was The Trip (2010) in which these two hysterically funny, highly literate British comics traveled and ate in restaurants in the north of England. The pretext was that Rob was asked to take on this assignment for The Observer and his girlfriend was not able to go, so he asked his old friend Steve. The highlight of these films is not the food, although there are food porn scenes and clearly these two enjoy eating and drinking fine wine.
Nope. The highlight is their interaction, banter and constant dueling impressions of famous actors. In The Trip, they outdid themselves in imitating Michael Caine at many stages of his career. In The Trip to Italy, they try to outdo each other in the best Brando, De Niro, Pacino, Bogart and Eastwood impressions. In one hysterical scene, they imitate Tom Hardy and Christian Bale in their unintelligible dialogue from behind the Batman mask. However, that is outdone by the impressions of the various James Bond actors, culminating in the bawdiest joke you will ever hear about a kumquat.
Coogan and Brydon also show their British loyalty by retracing the paths of their favorite Romantic poets, Byron and Shelley, posing in front of their plaques and statues and quoting them at length. Oh, and they drive a new Mini convertible, but that is homage to what Michael Caine drove in the 1969 caper film, The Italian Job. (Better than its 2001 remake, but both are very funny.) Another lovely moment is the two singing along to Alanis Morissette’s Jagged Little Pill, the only CD Rob brought along. (First they have to debate how to pronounce her first name and whether her father was named Alan and really wanted a son.)
Coogan and Brydon are laugh-out-loud, snort-thru-your-nose funny. The 108-minute film is mostly improvised and director Michael Winterbottom may only need to plot out the itinerary and turn these two madmen loose. They travel down the Ligurian and Amalfi coasts, stopping in half a dozen places to dine and visit. The scenery is gorgeous, from the seacoasts to the streets of Rome to the glories of Capri.
There are some serious points in this lightly fictionalized film. The two leads play themselves, but their backstories are fictionalized. In the film, Coogan has a teenaged son who joins them briefly and Brydon has a wife and young daughter. Occasionally, they will stop their banter and mourn the problems of being aging men. While watching a table of young people drink and chat, Coogan notes that he probably would have gotten a smile from at least one young attractive women. “Now they just look straight through you,” he laments.
Here are the trailers for The Trip to Italy (2014) and The Trip (2010). The former is in theaters right now and the latter is available on Netflix streaming and other sources.
Both Brydon and Coogan are well-known comics and actors in England, but you may not be familiar with them. Coogan played the journalist Martin Sixsmith in Philomena, where he helps the character played by Judy Dench to seek out the child she was forced to give up for adoption when she was a teenager living in an Irish convent.
24 Hour Party People
My other favorite Steve Coogan film, however, is 24 Hour Party People from 2002. Taking place in 1976 through 1992, it’s the story of the birth of the punk rock scene in Manchester, England, set off by a legendary concert by the Sex Pistols. The concert audience was only 42 people, but was one of those events that hundreds claim to have attended.
Among those rocking with the Sex Pistols that night were four young musicians who were inspired to form the band Joy Division. Tony Wilson, a Granada TV presenter, was there and decided it was his mission to bring this new kind of music to a larger audience. He founded Factory Records to record it and later opened a club, The Hacienda, to present it. The Hacienda became part of the rave and drug culture and eventually closed down for lack of revenue. The two-hour film is mainly the story of Joy Division, which later became New Order, and other Manchester bands.
I just watched the film again on YouTube and it’s as good as it was the first time I saw it. Click on this link and see it in its entirety.
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Europeans may consider August a month for a long holiday, but Chicagoans, those American workaholics, are not taking the month off. We’re busy making and consuming art. Mostly consuming.
Foreign films: Brazil and the UK
August is foreign film month for the Chicago Film Lovers Exchange. We’re discussing a film from a different country each Wednesday night. Last week we took on Brazil and member Ana led a discussion on The Year My Parents Went on Vacation, a film told from the point of view of Mauro, about the events surrounding the 1970 World Cup and political turmoil in Brazil. Mauro’s parents leave him to live with his grandfather (not knowing that the elderly man just died) because they have to flee the right-wing dictatorship that overthrew the elected left-wing government. (Familiar political story, isn’t it?) How Mauro survives and builds his own community is the crux of the film.
Ana recommended another interesting film also told from a child’s viewpoint. Valentin is an 8-year-old boy whose parents have scattered and left him to live with his grandmother in 1967 Buenos Aires. Valentin is determined to be an astronaut and walks around in heavy boots to prepare for zero gravity. He knows there are problems in his family and decides he’ll solve them himself, since the grownups have failed him.
Both films are charming and troubling. Troubling because both Mauro and Valentin are deserted by their parents.
This week the group discussed Blowup, the landmark 1966 film written and directed by Michelangelo Antonioni (his first English-language film). It’s about a successful fashion photographer in mod London, played by David Hemmings, who shoots film in an isolated park to kill time one day. When he processes the film, he sees evidence of a possible murder, and crops and blows up the negative to try to determine what happened. Vanessa Redgrave plays the woman in the park.
Blowup is on many lists of best films of the decade and century and, as a character study, it benefits from multiple viewings. One of the treats of the film is a club scene where the Yardbirds are playing: Jeff Beck and Jimmy Page as young musicians. The cameras and darkroom equipment used by the photographer are fascinating and represent an evolution in the history of photographic technology. In the park scenes, he’s shooting with one of the first Nikon Fs, a 35mm single lens reflex camera that enables him to move agilely, compared to the Hasselblad medium-format camera and the 4×5 sheet-film camera he uses in his studio.
Summer Music Film Festival: Stop Making Sense
The Music Box currently is showing its annual Summer Music Film Festival with great films like Purple Rain, Hard Day’s Night, Good Vibrations and Rubber Soul. The festival benefits Sound Opinions, the rock and roll talk show, and WBEZ.
Best of all, the 30th anniversary version of Stop Making Sense, the concert film by the Talking Heads. It’s 95 minutes of magic, directed by Jonathan Demme. You can see it again Tuesday, August 19, the last night of the festival. I may go again.
The film is a real treat on the big screen; I was very excited to see it that way because I’ve only seen it on a TV screen. Stop Making Sense opens with David Byrne walking out on an open stage with a boombox and a guitar. He starts off with “Psycho Killer” and near the end of it is joined by bassist Tina Weymouth. One by one, more band members join him as roadies push the drum kit stand on stage, then the keyboard stands. Chris Frantz on the drum kit, Jerry Harrison on guitar, two backup singers, Steve Scales on percussion and Alex Weir on guitar. Finally Bernie Worrell hops up on the keyboard stand and the band is complete. Musicians change off instruments throughout the concert, which was filmed over two days at a theater in Los Angeles.
Demme’s touch is obvious in dramatic performer lighting and visual projections. Byrne’s creative madness is on display throughout, in his dancing, marching, duets with his bandmates, and finally, in the Big Suit. In the second half of the concert, Byrne appears in a giant suit to perform “Girlfriend Is Better.” Gradually over the next few songs, the tall skinny Byrne takes off pieces of the suit. The concert also includes one number by the Tom Tom Club, a group made up of the other band members, sans Byrne.
Just one more: Mood Indigo
I’ll mention one more film that gave me great pleasure recently. It’s Mood Indigo or L’écume des jours, written and directed by Michel Gondry (who we know for Is the Man Who Is Tall Happy?, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Science of Sleep).
Mood Indigo is a charming romantic film with some surrealistic features. The film bounces delightfully from one strange situation to another. Colin’s shoes run down the steps in front of him and he slips into them at the bottom. A tray of petit fours is served that actually are tiny ovens. When Colin’s sweetheart Chloe becomes ill, it’s diagnosed as caused by a water lily growing in her lung. There are some magical events and weird gadgets in this film that remind me of the crazy animation of Triplets of Belleville.
Gondry is a former art student and drummer for a pop-rock band. He gained his reputation directing music videos, including five of them for the Icelandic singer, Björk. He then made many award-winning commercials for major corporations, which gained Hollywood attention and smoothed his way into film direction.
Mood Indigo is adapted from a cult novel by Boris Vian. You will either love it or hate it.
Springsteen 65th birthday bash
Consider this a save-the-date notice. If you’re a Bruce Springsteen fan, or just a fan of Americana and roots rock and acoustic music, you’ll be interested in the 65th birthday party we’re planning for Mr. Springsteen. No, he won’t be there. But Bucky Halker and friends will be there, to play Springsteen music and read some poems and doggerel.
The date is Saturday, September 27, at Fitzgerald’s in Berwyn. Tickets are $10 and are on sale now.
The event is being planned by the Phantom Collective, a grassroots Chicago group partly inspired by pub theater. The Phantom Collective sponsors programs of music and theater pieces—mostly from the North American and Anglo-Celtic traditions— at various venues around town. Nothing formal or regularly scheduled; that’s why it’s a phantom.
A Master Builder is a really special film running for just a few more days at the Gene Siskel Film Center. So I urge you to see it, if you are fond of the work of Henrik Ibsen, of Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory, of Jonathon Demme, or of great filmmaking in general. Check out my review on Gapers Block, where the headline is: A Master Builder: A Claustrophobic Stew of Lust, Ambition, Ego and Envy.
Chicago actor Lisa Joyce is hardly an unknown, but her performance here as the bewitching Hilde is stunning. In fact, the ensemble of seven actors is excellent.
There are rumors that A Master Builder will be added to the Criterion Collection of famous Shawn/Gregory collaborations, which now include My Dinner with Andre and Vanya on 42nd Street. That would be in the Buy It category for me.
Chicagoans are fortunate to have two major art museums and many medium and small galleries, where you can see a vast array of classic and contemporary art. I took advantage of that this week, seeing Rene Magritte’s “elective affinities” and Josef Koudelka’s photographs at the Art Institute, and Ed Paschke’s vivid character studies at the new Ed Paschke Art Center.
Magritte: The Mystery of the Ordinary, 1926-1938
Magritte is the current major exhibit at the Art Institute of Chicago. You’ll find it in Regenstein Hall, on the second level near the rear of the building. One of the benefits is that you get to walk thru the beautiful hall of Asian sculpture, which is displayed in a setting of rich golds and oranges. Then, when you turn right and walk up a short flight of stairs, you’re greeted with the hallway of Ellsworth Kelly color-field paintings, one of my favorite exhibits.
The Magritte exhibit runs until October 13 and it is well worth seeing, both for the art itself and for the creative way the work is exhibited. Magritte’s art was influenced by his work in advertising and theatrical design as well as by his connections with Andre Breton and Tristan Tsara, the founders of surrealism and of the Dada movement, respectively, as well as Salvador Dali and Joan Miro.
Magritte’s work is bizarre, quirky, and deliberately deceptive and shows his keen and intelligent sense of humor. One of his best-known works is the word-image painting, “The Treachery of Images,” a smoker’s pipe with the legend, “Ceci n’est pas une pipe.” Another work titled “The Interpretation of Dreams,” shows a two-by-two grid; each square includes an image and a label. But three of the four are labeled whimsically. Only the valise is in fact labeled as a valise. Most of his paintings are subtle and sometimes mystifying, like “Entr’acte,” a 1927 painting showing disembodied leg-arm parts on a stage-set background.
In “Not to be Reproduced,” we see the back of a man looking in a mirror at the back of his own image. In a painting titled “La Clairvoyance,” a painter (Magritte himself?) paints a large bird while looking intently at his model, a pristine egg.
Here’s a video teaser about the exhibit.
Curator Stephanie D’Alessandro is to be commended for bringing in Canadian opera director Robert Carsen to design the imaginative setting for Magritte’s work. No large white galleries here. Instead, the walls are dark gray and the only illumination is on the paintings themselves. The space swerves and snakes thru the display area so you only see one or a few works at a time. Near the end, there’s a series of very small galleries, like the tiny side chapels in a cathedral, each with one work hanging alone for your bemusement.
I heard two people talking as they walked out of the exhibit. One said, “Well, what did you think?” And her friend said, “I don’t know, I thought it was odd.” The first person said, “Well, I thought it was depressing. All those dark walls….”
Trust me, it isn’t depressing. Magritte puzzles and amuses. You’ll find yourself laughing aloud at some of his “mysteries.” Go on a day when you need a mood enhancer.
Josef Koudelka: Nationality Doubtful
The Art Institute also is showing a large exhibit of dramatic photographs by the Czech-born Magnum photographer, Josef Koudelka. They’re displayed on the main level of the Modern Wing. In one gallery are his panoramic landscape photographs, some large and framed, and smaller ones, displayed in horizontal bands across the gallery walls. His landscapes are not green and pastoral. He photographs old industrial and mining sites, destroyed monuments and the detritus of modern life.
Across the hall in a second gallery are two very moving exhibits of human scale. “Gypsies” is composed of 22 photos, portraits of musicians, individuals, groups and interiors showing the lives of the Roma people, photographed in Rumania, Slovakia and the “Czech lands.” They’re grainy, black and white, and very human. Most stunning is a funeral image of a family standing on both sides of a body wrapped in white; the scene is naturally lighted from the window in a Caravaggesque manner.
The second exhibit is titled “Invasion” and was photographed in August 1968 as Russian troops and tanks invaded Prague. Koudelka loaded his camera with East German movie film and shot for six days. He then managed to process the film and Magnum smuggled the negatives to the US. The exhibit includes a video of a CBS newscast about the invasion, showing dozens of Koudelka’s images.
Ed Paschke in Jefferson Park
The Ed Paschke Art Center, a museum dedicated to the work of Ed Paschke of the Chicago Imagists, opened last month in Jefferson Park. I have always been a fan of Paschke’s work, which is brilliantly vivid and gorgeously grotesque. I visited the new center this week and wrote an article about it for Gapers Block. You can read it here and see a few images from the center. The 30-minute video is particularly interesting because Paschke is so articulate about how he works. There are interview segments from the 1970s and the early 2000s.
This poster is from the 1990-91 retrospective of Paschke’s work at the Art Institute. This poster has been hanging in my bedroom ever since and has lulled me to sleep every night.
On two consecutive days last weekend, I had the good fortune to be in the right place for amazing dramatic experiences. You’ve probably read a lot about one—Richard Linklater’s film, Boyhood. But probably not much about the other. Both are exceptional works.
The Jungle at Oracle Theatre
Matt Foss’ play is adapted from Upton Sinclair’s novel, The Jungle. It’s set in Chicago in 1906 and focuses on the immigrant families who came here to find jobs and a better life than they could hope for in their European homelands. They found work—and a good deal more—in Chicago’s stockyards. Sinclair’s book, while focusing on the grim lives led by these immigrants, also described the conditions of the stockyards in gruesome detail. To his chagrin, it was the stockyard images that people focused on…possibly because they were appalled to think that was where their meat came from. Like other muckrakers of the time, he hoped to focus public attention on the needs of the people and bring about government action for change.
Oracle Theatre is presenting the world premiere of this play, directed by Foss, who also developed the ingenious stage design that I describe in my Gapers Block review. The play is 100 minutes and will remind you why Chicago theater is great. In your face? Yes. Focused on a message? Absolutely. And tragically, exuberantly dramatic.
Oracle Theatre is committed to free art for all and so their tickets are free (but you should reserve a seat). I write a little about their business model at the end of my review. So far, they seem to be operating successfully with no “earned income.” They deserve your support, not because they’re free, but because they tell great stories.
Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s film about growing up
This film is having a gradual nationwide rollout, and Chicago is in the first wave of releases. You can see this beautiful film at River East 21 or Landmark Century Centre right now. Here’s what I said in my brief Letterboxd review:
Boyhood is a beautifully edited story of a boy growing into a young man. That’s all. Just life, compressed into 164 minutes. The transitions of age and family change are done so smoothly that sometimes you miss them. The film is rich in conversation (that often seems improvised, although it isn’t) about life, its meaning and potential. Linklater’s felicitous choice of a 6-year-old boy who would continue to be interesting for the next 12 years is amazing. Patricia Arquette and Ethan Hawke, the boy’s divorced parents, also change over the years; they both give terrific performances.
Two years and counting
Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, Chicago stuff, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.
I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, where I’ve written 113 posts in the last 15 months—reviews of theater, art, architecture and design. You also can find my writing at culturevulture.net, an online arts magazine, where I review theater and other Chicago culture, and at theandygram.com, where I post new Chicago theater reviews.
Nancy Bishop’s Journal is two years old. It’s amazing to me that I’ve continued to write regularly and at length about the things I love: Theater, film, books, music, art and design, and sometimes food. My total is 120 posts since July 2012.
I’m also writing regularly at gapersblock.com/ac/, reviewing theater and art.
Think of it as grad school in a bottle. Two weeks of 20-hour days filled with discussions, theater productions, review writing and critiquing, and never, never enough sleep. That was my recent two-week sojourn as a Fellow at the National Critics Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center in Waterford, Connecticut.
The center is located in a beautiful part of rural Connecticut, on the shore of Long Island Sound. So there were a few brief opportunities to visit the beach, or, more likely, to see it from a distance as we sat under a tree for one of our discussions. We stayed in a college dorm nearby and got shuttled back and forth to campus. The O’Neill Center is quite large, with two theaters inside and two outside. The “mansion” is home to the O’Neill’s administrative offices and the kitchen and cafeteria where everyone ate (no ratings for the food). Another large home houses more offices and meeting rooms. There’s also the favorite Blue Gene’s Pub, a cozy tavern that was busy every night. Our morning meetings (before the heat set in) were usually held in the Sunken Garden, under the trees with a view of the ocean. In the afternoons, we met in the Founders Room or another meeting room. (All photos by Nancy Bishop.)
The Monte Cristo Cottage, O’Neill’s childhood summer home, is in New London, a short drive from the campus. The house was the setting for his masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey into Night. We spent part of a day there, touring the house and talking about theater—and feeling some of the eerie O’Neill spirit.
Many other theater conferences were going on at the O’Neill at the same time. The National Playwrights Conference, the National Music Theater Conference, and Theatermakers (a six-week intensive for student playwrights, actors and directors). The National Puppetry Conference had just ended and the Cabaret and Performance Conference was about to begin.
Chris Jones, chief theater critic of the Chicago Tribune, is the new director of the institute, and he has added some new features to the workshop. For instance, one lovely Saturday evening, we went to Mystic, where we split up into smaller groups to have dinner (and write restaurant reviews when we got home). We saw a movie one night for the purpose of discussing the adaptation of a work from stage to screen. (See my Jersey Boys review.)
My 13 fellow Fellows were theater and arts writers and a few graduate students, mostly from the northeast but also from Dallas, Phoenix and Louisville—and three of us from Chicago.
Our days were filled with talks by visiting theater critics and other theater experts and sessions where our reviews were critiqued by Chris, the visitors and each other. It was a fabulously invigorating experience. Our nights were spent going to the theater and then writing reviews about what we had seen, for submission by early the next morning. Did I say never, never sleep?
I’ll give you an overview of some of the sessions we had with visiting critics and theater folk.
Michael Phillips, the Chicago Tribune’s chief film critic, is a former theater critic for the Tribune and several other papers. He talked about his favorite film and theater writers and gave us some valuable insights on writing reviews. He also talked about the art of adapting a work from stage to screen.
Dan Sullivan, Jones’ predecessor as director of the NCI, was a theater critic for the LA Times and the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. We read the Tennessee Williams short story (“Portrait of a Girl in Glass”) that later became the play, The Glass Menagerie, and Dan talked about the structure of the play and its first reviews in 1944.
Josh Horvath, a sound designer from Chicago, was at the O’Neill Center to handle sound design for one of the O’Neill productions. He described who handles what in the sound area during a production, and the difference between orchestration and sound.
Jeffrey Sweet, playwright, who worked for years in Chicago, is author of Flyovers, The Value of Names, The Action Against Sol Schuman and Class Dismissed. He also is author of the new history celebrating the O’Neill’s 50th anniversary—The O’Neill: The Transformation of the Modern American Theater (Yale University Press, 2014).
Matt Wolf, theater critic for the International New York Times and formerly for the International Herald-Tribune. He’s a Yank, based in London, so he regaled us with tales of the London theater scene. He also was an excellent person to work with on critiques of our reviews.
Linda Winer, theater critic for Newsday, and formerly critic for the Chicago Tribune, provided a wealth of information about the role of the critic.
William Grimes writes for the New York Times, where he was chief food critic from 1999 until 2004. He told us his personal rules for the colleagues who accompanied him on his food adventures (everyone orders something different, don’t eat slowly, make at least three visits to the restaurant) and gave us many great insights on writing—about food and other topics.
Hedy Weiss, theater and dance critic for the Chicago Sun-Times. Hedy, a former dancer, had us start our session by doing stretches on the patio outside out meeting room. We watched different types of dance videos to get a sense of how to review this art that most of us were not experienced with. We also saw and reviewed the 2013 documentary—Afternoon of a Faun: Tanaquil Le Clercq—about the great ballerina who was stricken by polio at 27 and never danced again. After years of treatment and therapy, she was able to live a vibrant and active life (confined to a wheelchair) for several decades. The film was a PBS American Masters episode and had an art house release.
Nick Wyman, president of Actors Equity and an actor in one of the National Music Theater productions.
Peter Marks, theater critic for the Washington Post. Peter was a delightful and thoughtful participant in our discussions. I learned a lot from listening to him critique our reviews.
O’Neill creatives—director, playwright, composer, lyricist and scene designer—who talked about their crafts and what pisses them off about theater reviews—and reviewers.
We saw and reviewed four of the O’Neill productions in staged reading form. By agreement with O’Neill, I’m not at liberty to discuss those in any way. Playwrights live at the O’Neill for a month and work with directors and actors in rehearsals that result in public staged readings. A similar process enables several playwrights, lyricists, and composers to develop new work in a variety of music theater genres. The O’Neill provides artistic and administrative support so that the artists can explore the material with directors, musicians, and Equity performers. Even after brief rehearsal and rewriting periods, you could see that some of these productions will definitely appear on stages or screens near you some time soon.
We also took field trips around Rhode Island and Connecticut to see and review regional theater.
At Trinity Repertory Company in Providence, we saw an excellent production of Sam Shepard’s A Lie of the Mind. This veteran repertory company presented a gripping version of this Shepard play. It was my favorite performance of the two weeks.
At the Ivoryton Playhouse in Ivoryton, Connecticut, we saw a so-so production of All Shook Up. The cast was enthusiastic but the quality was community-theater level.
At the Goodspeed Opera House in East Haddam, Connecticut, we saw a fine production of Fiddler on the Roof. I should say, I heard a fine production. Some of us were sitting in the second-row balcony just over the stage where we had almost no view of the performance. The music was great.
At Connecticut Repertory Theatre on the UConn campus in Storrs, we saw Leslie Uggams in a bizarre production of Gypsy. Bizarre because she was so miscast in the role. The theater trumpeted the production as the first time an African-American actor was cast in an Equity production of Gypsy with a multiracial cast. Many of the cast members were quite capable, but, unfortunately, Uggams was about 20 years past her time for this show. For the story to work, Mama Rose should be in her 40s or maybe early 50s but Uggams is in her 70s—and not a frisky 70. The actor who played her love interest was nearly comatose—either from shock or lack of direction.
By the end of two weeks, we were all sleep-deprived but exhilarated from the intellectual and creative experience. We worked straight through from Saturday thru Friday 14 days later, with one day off.
To make up for the relatively awful food in the campus cafeteria where we ate most of our meals, we had a few good food excursions. To Bobby B’s Deli, a short walk from our dorm, where we had amazing egg-on-bagel sandwiches. To a tavern in Ivoryton, where I had a sensational lobster roll. To Ocean Pizza in New London, for a fried scallop grinder that was mmm-mmm but too much to eat. To Azu in Mystic for some sophisticated casual food. To an Italian café in East Haddam for a pre-show dinner. And home again to eat my own cooking. Delicious.
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At this moment, I’m sitting in the Providence airport, waiting for my delayed flight home after spending two weeks on the shore in Connecticut. That’s why I haven’t posted anything recently at Nancy’s Journal. While I was there, I saw and reviewed Clint Eastwood’s film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical. The film is showing on some Chicago screens, and here’s my review.
Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical about kids who found a way out of their deadend lives through music: a rock and roll escape route. The 1950s and ‘60s pop music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—with songs like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—makes this otherwise mediocre film a pleasurable musical experience.
Jersey Boys tells the story in semi-documentary style of the kids who grew up on the streets of New Jersey in towns like Newark and Belleville. There was no way out of the deadend lives their parents lived as barbers, laborers or tradesmen—unless you hooked up with the mob or became a superstar. Becoming the next Frank Sinatra was every Jersey boy’s dream in the 1950s.
Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) forms a trio (between prison stints) but the band is going nowhere, playing small clubs and banquet halls. They need a strong lead singer. Tommy finds Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), who has a powerful falsetto voice, and asks him to join the band. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the bass player, rounds out the quartet.
The group plays under different names, including The Four Lovers and The Romans, but their career still flounders—until they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter and keyboard player they need. The boys rename themselves The Four Seasons.
Desperate for a record contract, they meet Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a producer at the iconic Brill Building, where so many recording careers start. Tommy, who considers himself the band’s business manager, uses some sketchy connections to borrow the money they need for a recording session. They get help from their consigliore, Gyp DeCarlo (the marvelously eccentric Christopher Walken) and their first records are produced.
“Sherry” is their first #1 single, followed by several more million-selling hits. Frankie Valli (who has now changed his name) and the Four Seasons play big-time clubs and venues and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The boys think they are rich, but all is not well on the business front. They’ve made the mistake of letting Tommy manage the band with no advisers paying attention to the contracts they sign. (Or don’t sign. The “New Jersey contract” is a handshake.)
The Four Seasons took the same path followed by many young musicians in the days before they learned they needed lawyers and business managers who worked for them. The Chess brothers in Chicago lured Mississippi bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to sign contracts that gave them fancy cars and minimal royalties. (Hence, the nickname for Chess Records was Cadillac Records.) Young musicians like the Beatles in the 1960s and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s were taken advantage of by their managers, earned modest record incomes, and lost the publishing rights to their own music for decades.
Despite their recording success, the Four Seasons split up when Gaudio and Valli decide they can make more progress and better creative decisions on their own. (They formed the Four Seasons Partnership, which still controls the assets of the band.)
Family traumas and tragedies fill out the story of the band and its music. In one final scene, we see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (aged, in badly done makeup), reunited in 1990 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As the film credits roll, the band members and entire cast engage in a street dancing scene, including faux curtain calls.
Director Clint Eastwood has chosen to give the film a look of faded glitter and glamour and the acting doesn’t add to the luster of the film. John Lloyd Young as Valli is wooden and generally expressionless. Piazza is livelier as Tommy and makes you believe that he might be able to talk himself out of trouble. Bergen’s Gaudio character is at first quiet and serious as a musician and he was probably the most intelligent of the four—and proved it by engineering the split and partnership with Valli.
Valli and Gaudio are among the executive producers of Jersey Boys and are reported to have had total control over the film. But they’re musicians. How could they forget to do a sound check? The sound quality of the film is below average and that spoils its best feature.
Still, the 2.25 hour film is worth seeing if you want to listen to the jukebox of the 1960s. As a rock and roll escape route, Jersey Boys can’t find its way down the New Jersey turnpike.