Ain’t That a Shame?

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“You’d be like heaven to touch, I want to hold you so much.” Is there a more perfect lyric in the world, one reviewer asks. The lyrics of the Four Seasons expressed all the yearning of unrequited love. I can still remember the party where my adolescent heart was stirred while that song played in my mind. “Can’t take my eyes off of you,” I hummed softly, but his eyes adored someone else. Oh what a night — the music of our youth stays with us and has the power to evoke long-dormant memories and emotions.

That’s one reason that Jersey Boys (like Mamma Mia) has had such a long and successful run on Broadway, playing to people who often sing along (to the annoyance of the person in the next seat). The Four Seasons were the “other” ’60s sound — not rock and roll and not Motown but simple, true lyrics sung in clear, clean harmonies with that strong countertenor of Frankie Valli set in just the right key for female teenyboppers. I learned how to sing harmony with the Four Seasons. They were a sound you could play in front of your parents.

Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally.

Their personal lives were another story, however — normalized at the time but recently placed in another light by the Broadway musical and now the film. As represented by the movie, the boys from Jersey — Tommy, Nicky, Joe, and Frankie (Bob was from a nicer background) — were little more than hoodlums, knocking over delivery trucks and breaking into jewelry stores when they were supposed to be in the library. They knew the beat cops by name, and for some of them the local detention facility was like a revolving door, as the characters gleefully admit in the film. Of course, this is the way it’s remembered by Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, executive producers of the film; Tommy, Nicky, and Joey might remember it quite differently.

“There were three ways out of the neighborhood,” Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the audience. “Join the army, join the mob, or become famous.” The first two could get you killed, so singing was the ticket out. Sinatra, another Frank who made it out of Jersey through his glorious voice, is next to the Pope in this story — quite literally. Their photos are set in a double frame and stand like a shrine of hope on the living room shelf of Frankie’s childhood home.

The first half of the film focuses on the boys’ backgrounds and their slow rise to fame through seedy nightclubs and bowling alley bars. Waiting over an hour for the first familiar song to appear in this film heightens the drama at its unveiling. I was tapping my foot impatiently. But when it finally arrives it reminds us of how sublime their harmonies were, and how simple their lyrics: “She-e-e-rry, Sherry baby, She-e-erry, Sherry baby. She-eh-eh-eh-eh-erry baby. Sherry baby. Sherry, won’t you come out tonight?” Sheesh! How did that ever make it to the radio? Yet it topped the charts and was followed by hit after hit that told our stories in song.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage.

The lyrics of the songs tell the story in the film too, although it all works better in the stage musical, where the production numbers are showcased. Instead of using the lyrics to carry the story forward as most musicals do, Eastwood inserts them almost like a sidebar to the story he prefers to tell. In the film the songs often play in the background, and often while the characters are speaking, so the effect is lessened.

The huge theater where I saw the movie held exactly four viewers at the 7:15 show on opening night. Four Fans for the Four Seasons. Sigh. With the popularity of the Broadway musical (and Clint Eastwood as the producer and director) the film had a disappointing turnout for its opening day. But there’s the rub: Clint Eastwood. Who would have thought this talented octogenarian director known for his spare direction and raw drama would turn to the Broadway musical genre this late in his career? Oh wait — he already did, and it was a disaster. Eastwood starred as the singing prospector who shares a wife (Jean Seberg) with his partner (Lee Marvin, who has purchased her from a polygamous Mormon) in Lerner and Loewe’s Paint Your Wagon (1969), a movie based very loosely on the 1951 play that ran for only 289 performances. Eastwood was ridiculous in that film, and he brings no genuine experience to the filming of this musical. He also uses actors with no genuine experience on screen, intensifying the problem.

One of Eastwood’s biggest mistakes was the decision to bring several original cast members and other virtual unknowns from the Broadway stage to the sound stage. With only one familiar face — Christopher Walken as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, who acts as a kindly godfather to the Jersey boys — there is no name other than Eastwood’s to attract film audiences. The four who play the Seasons are actually pretty good, (Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi, Erich Bergen as composer Bob Gaudio, and Tony-award-winner John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli), but they aren’t, well, they aren’t seasoned. Renee Marino, who plays Frankie’s wife Mary onstage and in the film, is simply annoying with her exaggerated movements and wild outbursts of emotion. I actually went home and looked up her background, expecting to learn that she is Eastwood’s newest girlfriend, but she isn’t. (Remember those godawful movies from the ’70s and ’80s when Sondra Locke was his main squeeze? They were every which way but right.) The most interesting actor is Joseph Russo, also a newcomer, and only because he plays Joe Pesci. Yes, that Joe Pesci. He’s credited in the movie with bringing Bob Gaudio into the group, back when Pesci was just another kid from New Jersey. Eventually Tommy DeVito went to work with Pesci, and Pesci took Tommy’s name for his character in Goodfellas.

The problem is that acting for the screen is quite different from acting for a live audience. A movie screen is 70 feet wide, making the actor much larger than life. The flick of an eyebrow or twitch of a finger can relay emotion and communicate thoughts. Stage actors, on the other hand, must play to the balcony. Their actions are broad, even in tender moments. When Mary leans across a diner table with her butt in the air and her lips pouting forward as a come-on to the inexperienced Frankie, it works for the stage but is comical and unrealistic for the screen. And Eastwood should know, because he is the master of unspoken communication. In interviews Marino gushes about how relaxed and easy-going Eastwood was on set, but she needed direction. Desperately. “I need you, baby, to warm the lonely nights” can be said without words and bring tears to the eyes. Keep it simple, and keep it real. As Frankie says to Bob Gaudio about the arrangement of a new song, “If you goose it up too much it gets cheesy.”

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore

Overall Jersey Boys is a good film that provides interesting background about the music industry. Touring and recording isn’t all glitz and glamour; it’s mostly packing and repacking, eating in diners, staying in nondescript hotel rooms where you aren’t sure which direction is the bathroom in the middle of the night, missing family events, and in the end getting screwed over by unscrupulous money managers. It’s tough. But the film doesn’t give us much perspective about the Four Seasons and the time period in which they wrote. They were the clean-cut lounge singers who made hit after hit side by side with the Beatles, the Beach Boys, and the Rolling Stones. They held their own during the tumultuous ’60s, just singing about love: “Who loves you? Who loves you pretty baby?” They paved the way for a whole new sound in the ’70s when they added a brass orchestra.

Despite the hardships of the touring life, that wonderful music makes it all worthwhile. When asked to describe the best part of being the Four Seasons, Frankie responds simply, “When it was just us four guys singing under a street light.” Anyone who sings knows that feeling. It’s the joy of making music together.

That joy comes through in the closing credits of the film, when the cast members dance through the streets to a medley of songs reminiscent of the curtain-call encore at the end of the Broadway musical. Wisely Eastwood used the recordings of the original Four Seasons for the closing credits instead of the voices of the actors who play them in the movie. The difference is profound. Valli had such a glorious bell-like quality to his falsetto, while Young’s is simply false. He tries hard, but the effort shows. In the first hour of the film, when people react to his voice as he is “discovered,” it’s almost puzzling. What’s so great about this nasally voice with the slight rasp that makes you want to clear your throat? In the closing minutes of this film, listening to the original Four Seasons, it all makes sense.


Editor's Note: Review of "Jersey Boys," directed by Clint Eastwood. Warner Brothers, 2014, 134 foot-tapping minutes.



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President Obama, Meet Alfred E. Neuman

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Isn’t it interesting that Barack Obama, whose presidency is intellectually and demographically a product of the antiwar, anti-imperialist, distrust-government movement of the 1960s and 1970s, has emerged as an automatic exponent of hidebound, don’t give an inch, interventionist, obscurantist, and warmaking government?

Obama couldn’t sit back and watch revolutions happen in Arab countries. He just had to intervene. Now he has to threaten and meddle in Syria, of all places. We will be fortunate if his militarism remains as feckless as it is right now.

As for domestic affairs . . . he couldn’t turn his crusading spirit against the entrenched forces of the Washington bureaucracy, as he appeared to have promised in 2008. Oh no. So far, he’s never seen a bureaucracy he didn’t want to defend. Not one of his significant officials has been invited to resign for his or her notorious failures. They’re all still there, telling transparent lies to Congress and the nation.

The latest example is Obama’s response to the gross failure of the FBI, which did nothing either to prevent the Boston bombers from doing their thing or to identify them afterward, despite the fact that the Bureau had, on its right hand, a passport picture of Tamerlan Tsarnaev and, on its left hand, videos of the same Tamerlan Tsarnaev planting bombs. In the face of this evidence, the president proclaimed that the FBI did a great job.

According to the Washington Post:

In his first news conference since the Boston attack, Obama said law enforcement agencies had performed in “exemplary fashion” in the hunt for the bombers and in investigating one of the suspects before the bombings. He accused critics of chasing headlines.

“Based on what I’ve seen so far, the FBI performed its duties,” Obama said. “Department of Homeland Security did what it was supposed to be doing. But this is hard stuff.”

Hard stuff? How hard is it to compare pictures? And how hard is it to devise ways of keeping creeps like the Tsarnaevs out of the country? Or their creepy friends, now arrested for covering up the Tsarnaevs’ crimes? But imagine that you’re a government bureaucrat. Then your default position will be: student visas — why check? And yes, suppose that the Tsarnaevs return to the country that is supposedly persecuting them, thereby giving them a reason to live on welfare in the United States — well, why hold that against them? They’re charged with crimes? So what? Who, me? Worry?

Ridiculous? Yes. And why should Obama defend it?

The sad explanation is that he is a part of the old “counterculture” at its silliest, and it turns out to be intellectually and emotionally indistinguishable from the political “culture” it warred against. War is wrong — except when good people (like us) are waging it. Imperialism is wrong — except when good people (like us) are pushing the foreigners around. Entrenched bureaucracies are wrong — except when they are entrenched bureaucracies run by good people (us again!).

So that’s what it all came down to. Authority is wrong whenever I’m not the authority. But whenever I am, it’s doing what it’s supposed to be doing. Critics are just chasing headlines.

The ’60s died — not with a bang but a blowhard.




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Problems of Perspective

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Perspective. Two people can look at the very same scene, or experience the very same event, yet come away with completely different ideas of what they have seen. That seems to be the point of Wes Anderson's latest film, Moonrise Kingdom, and he begins making that point, cleverly and creatively, with his opening scene.

We see a painting of a seaside house. As the camera comes closer, we enter the house. It is obviously a dollhouse, full of tiny dollhouse furniture. Then a boy walks into the scene, passes the tiny chair, and demonstrates that it is actually normal size. As the camera pans from room to room, similar anomalies appear. We see a giant set of binoculars at the far side of a room, until a young girl walks into the scene and comes toward the binoculars. Only then do we realize that they were normal sized binoculars sitting on the window sill in the foreground, not the background. Again, we see a full-sized lighthouse in the distance, until a car drives into the scene and we realize it is merely a mailbox in the foreground, decorated to look like a lighthouse.

These optical illusions are no accident, and they are not merely a filmmaker's cinematic game, although they are mighty fun. Anderson uses this technique to establish, early in the film, that what we see is not always what we get. Our perspective of anything we see is often skewed by our expectation of what it is. The girl carries her binoculars everywhere and sees almost everything through their lenses, suggesting that if we look at events more closely, and put people into the picture, we are more likely to gain a proper perspective.

Wes Anderson is known for his quirky story lines, dysfunctional families, vivid color palate, and deadpan direction. This film is no exception. Moonrise Kingdom is a story of young star-crossed lovers — a familiar story, here turned upside down. Suzy Bishop (Kara Hayward) is the oldest child of a pair of lawyers (Bill Murray and Frances McDormand) who speak in legal jargon and call their four children to dinner with a megaphone. At one point a shirtless Mr. Bishop walks through the living room, carrying an axe, and announces to no one in particular, "I'm going to find a tree to chop down." No wonder Suzy has anger-control issues.

Sam (Jared Gilman) is an orphaned "Khaki Scout" staying at a summer camp across the island from Suzy's house. Sam doesn't fit in with the other scouts. Authority figures in 1965, when this film is set, would probably have said he needs to "be a man"; certainly no one seems concerned about how the other boys treat him. Those same authorities today would probably say “he is being bullied.” It's all about perspective, isn't it?

Sam and Suzy meet by accident when the scouts attend a church production of Benjamin Britten's "Noye's Fludde," in which Suzy plays the raven. (Okay, it's not exactly by accident; Sam sneaks into the girls' dressing room to find out who she is.) Britten's music provides the score for much of the film, and "Noye's Fludde" foreshadows both the pairing up of the two young romantics and the tempest — figurative and literal — that is about to break forth.

After a year of clandestine correspondence and furtive binocular spying, Sam breaks out of his tent, Shawshank style, and runs off with Suzy into the woods. The shenanigans that follow, with scouts, family members, and a robotic matron (Tilda Swinton) known only as "Social Services" trying to find the runaways, is classic Anderson, with bizarre, illogical, unexpected happenings presented as perfectly natural events. The sweet budding romance between Sam and Suzy as they play house in the woods (also bizarre and illogical) is contrasted sharply with the mean-spirited antics of those who are sworn to protect them.

Under the direction of their gung-ho scoutmaster (Edward Norton) the rest of the scouts form a posse to track Sam down and bring him back to camp. "I resigned," Sam tells them simply, to explain why the boys have no jurisdiction over him. To this one of them asserts, "You don't have the authority to resign!" His perspective on group dynamics is funny and chilling, so obviously wrong and yet so socially accepted. Recalling the furniture in the film's opening scene, the boy appears to be a small GI Joe, but he is spouting grownup beliefs. Sam is correct when he says to the boys, "I don't like you and you don't like me, so why don't you just let me go?" But they won't let him go; they expect him to conform to the group.

All of this might be charming and delightful if only our star-crossed lovers were a little older. But to me there is something creepy and unnerving about 12-year-olds kissing in their underwear and talking about hard-ons and breasts. Yes, these children have faced some difficult obstacles, with Sam being sent to foster care after his parents died and Suzy spying on her mother's infidelity with the local cop (Bruce Willis) and being bathed by her mother at the age of 12. But I hardly think that running away to play house and have sexual experiences at that young age is the answer.

I also couldn't shake the realization that Kara Hayward and Jared Gilman were 12 themselves as they experienced their first "touching sessions" in front of cameras, boom operators, and director Anderson. As the film points out in its opening scene, a little perspective is wanted. Things that are large sometimes turn out to be small, and things that are small often turn out to be large. Children are small. They should not be placed in adult situations, no matter what the director — and their parents — tell them to do.


Editor's Note: Review of "Moonrise Kingdom," directed by Wes Anderson. Indian Paintbrush, 2012, 94 minutes.



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