- RatedNC16 /GenreBiography, Drama, Musical
On a cool fall day at the Warner Brothers ranch in Burbank, California, Clint Eastwood is prepping the first scene of the day for ‘Jersey Boys’ — his 33rd feature film as a director — with five days to go until the end of principal photography.
Inside the vast Stage 34, the director appears relaxed but focused as crew members hurry to adjust a few last-minute details.
A glimpse at the call sheet offers a little more about what is coming up: “Scene 78. Int. Allegro Recording Studio (1961). The boys sing backup for Hal Miller.”
‘Jersey Boys’ is Eastwood’s big-screen adaptation of the Tony Award-winning play of the same name. Since its 2005 Broadway debut, it has been seen by more than 17.5 million people around the world.
It tells the captivating and uplifting story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, the rise of four close friends and talented singers, as they come of age as performers, and the experience gleaned from tough years in working class New Jersey before they come to be known as the globally popular musical group.
Tony Award-winning actor John Lloyd Young plays singer Frankie Valli as he did on Broadway, and two actors who have done the show on stage are also in the film: Erich Bergen plays write-keyboardist Bob Gaudio, while Michael Lomenda plays bassist Nick Massi.
Vincent Piazza, known for his role as gangster Lucky Luciano from US TV series ‘Broadwalk Empire’, plays The Four Seasons founder Tommy DeVito.
EARLY DAYS BEFORE FAME
Standing on their marks in a brightly lit studio set, tucked into one corner of Stage 34, the young actors look dashing in slim-fit pants and equally fitted polo shirts, their hair impeccably coiffed.
In this scene, the boys are just four young budding singers anxious to be heard and craving their own artistic freedom. At this point in the film, they feel stuck and exploited, their talent unrecognised.
In the script are these lines: “We never read the fine print. The contract was for us as backup singers, with an option to record four of our songs — his option. So we spent the next year doing the musical equivalent of room service.”
Success for the group won’t come until 1962, when the song ‘Sherry’catapults them to the top of the charts. More hits follow, including ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, ‘Rag Doll’ and, later, ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’.
Back on Stage 34, the tight set restricts the camera somewhat, but director of photography Tom Stern and operator Stephen Campanelli come up with an elegant dolly shot that will end in a close-up of the singers’ faces reflected in the small studio’s glass partition.
Eastwood approves the shot, a voice calls out “rolling”, and the band starts to play guitar, bass and drums.
With each take, the actors sing live, as is most commonly practised in filmmaking. All are talented and charismatic performers, whose discipline and perfect harmonies make it easy to understand why Eastwood wanted them for the roles.
For their part, Young, Bergen, Piazza and Lomenda are still in awe at how much faith Eastwood has in them, referring to him as “Mr Eastwood”.
All through the afternoon and early evening, the actors have several costume changes as the sequences being shot for the day take place at different times in the story. The entire film is set from 1950 to 1974, with one sequence in 1990.
At 1pm, Eastwood, casually dressed, is in his director’s chair. Though he acted in Robert Lorenz’s ‘Trouble with the Curve’, the 2013 directorial debut of his close friend and longtime producer, he seems genuinely surprised when told he has not been behind the camera since April 2011, when he directed ‘J. Edgar’.
Did he miss directing? “No,” he answered with a smile, his voice almost a whisper. “I just took it easy for a while. I have a few projects to do, but I really liked this one and set aside another film to do it first.”
SIX YEARS TO GET FILM RIGHTS
‘Jersey Boys’came to the filmmaker through producer Graham King, who had pursued the film rights after catching the play during production of ‘The Departed’with frequent collaborator Martin Scorsese.
King recalled: “I went to see the show the second week it opened on Broadway and absolutely fell in love with it. And I’ve seen it 35 times since, but it took me six years to get the rights.
“The show was doing so well in the UK, Australia, and the US, obviously, that it took a lot of effort. I had many dinners with Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio, and they finally gave the rights to me.”
After a long search for a director that shared his vision for taking The Four Seasons’ story to the screen, King sent the screenplay to Eastwood almost on a whim. “I didn’t expect to hear back from him,” he remembered.
“But three days later, he called me and said, ‘I really love it. Let’s talk about it.’ So I flew up to Monterey. It is one of those great memories you get in life: Clint Eastwood picked me up at the airport and took me to lunch where he told me, ‘I’d love to do Jersey Boys’!”
Before signing on, Eastwood watched the Broadway show three times, noticing with each performance at three different venues that there was never an empty seat in the house.
“I could see why people loved it so much,” he said, “and thought it could be a good challenge to make a movie out of it. Instead of being in one square of the limited space of a stage, it will be out in the street, in the towns, on the road.”
HARDWORKING YOUNG MEN
John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in 'Jersey Boys'
The film’s screenplay and musical book are by Marshall Brickman – who co-wrote Woody Allen’s classic films ‘Annie Hall’ and ‘Manhattan’ – and Rick Elice. And the same team that wrote the Broadway show penned the script.
Film co-producer Lorenz said: “One of the most fascinating aspects of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is how their sounds evolved over time. They just kept hitting number one, even after The Beatles invaded America. But it wasn’t just luck. They never lost faith in what they were doing, and never stopped working hard. I think this is part of why their songs and story resonate with so many people – they’re universal.”
In the next scene at the studio, the actors are performing the famous tune ‘Walk Like a Man’. They have great chemistry and harmonise well.
Co-producer King admitted that casting was critical, but knew they had a great asset in Young.
“The voice is so important,” King said. “An actor in Hollywood with the voice of Frankie Valli is not out there and, believe me, I went from A to Z. But John Lloyd Young was always the guy. He’s funny, he has emotion, he has the look and the voice. He is the whole package. To play Frankie Valli, there is no one better.”
FROM STAGE TO STUDIO
Young has played the role for a live audience 1,200 times. He was still performing the show on Broadway six times a week just two weeks before travelling to Los Angeles to start shooting the film.
Up close, he radiates an effortless and innate magnetism that lends itself to the character of Valli, the boy with the big falsetto voice. He met Valli eight years ago, and calls the singer “the original working class Jersey guy”.
Bergen stars as Gaudio, who wrote or co-wrote all of the group’s most enduring hits, including ‘Sherry’. He, too, was able to meet and get to know Gaudio.
Bergen played the role for three years in the Las Vegas production of ‘Jersey Boys’, butsaid “never in my wildest dream did I imagine I would one day be acting in a Clint Eastwood movie”.
He noted that The Four Seasons’ group dynamic was often complicated, and that it took a lot of courage on Valli and Gaudio’s part to allow some of their challenging times to be depicted in the play and, ultimately, in the film.
“In the end, their job was to make peace emotionally with what they needed, and then let it go,” he said.
Lomenda, who plays Massi, has performed the role on tour throughout the US, but ‘Jersey Boys’marks his feature film debut, and Eastwood helped assuage his nerves.
The actor said: “On set, he creates the most incredible environment for you to just dive in and take risks. His way of telling the story is, for me, exhilarating, liberating and terrifying all at the same time. But I felt completely supported.”
HEART OF THE GROUP
He sees his character as the heart of the group, representing for the boys a sense of home and family.
Lomenda said: “From a historical standpoint, (Nick Massi) is considered Frankie’s vocal coach. He taught him how to grasp that upper register and was instrumental in creating that cool Four Seasons sound, with Frankie soaring high above everybody else.”
Piazza, who plays Tommy DeVito, said DeVito is “really the engine that got the group together at the beginning and took it to certain level before he left for good in 1970”.
While Piazza is the only one who has not acted in the stage musical, he said he had “great teachers” in the rest of the lead actors, “which was a blessing”.
“And I knew I was in the best hands with Clint. The fact that he believed in me gave me all the self-confidence I needed.”
Mike Doyle who plays Bob Crewe, the ingenious record producer and co-writer of some of the Four Seasons’ biggest hits, did not get a chance to meet Crewe in real life, but was able to get some insight from an unexpected source: Oscar winner and co-star Christopher Walken, who plays gangster Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo.
“(Walken) met Bob Crewe when he was a kid and told me stories that gave me an idea what he was like,” Doyle recalled.
“He was a very big personality, very savvy and very smart, kind of larger than life. He knew how to live life, had an amazing art collection and loved to entertain lavishly. Clint wanted to keep some of that extravagance but to tone it down for the film.”
It is 5pm and time for “lunch”. Eastwood sits with the crew in a structure close to the stage.
The filmmaker remembers the music of The Four Seasons as it evolved over the years, though he admits he did not follow rock ‘n’ roll. “I was always a jazz freak,” he said.
“But I did like that era. And there are a few classic songs, like ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’and some others. To me, they are in the realm of Cole Porter and Johnny Mercer, and other bigtime songwriters who wrote such beautiful songs in the 1940s. The Four Seasons’ music is from the ’50s and ’60s and they were beautiful songs, too.”
‘Jersey Boys’isthe director’s first film to carry such a strong musical component, and also his first to be shot digitally in its entirety.
But in his usual laconic style, the director says his approach is simple: “I just want to make a good, entertaining movie.”
‘Jersey Boys’opens in cinemas 17 July
Interview courtesy of Warner Bros