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Film Review

New films: Jersey Boys, The Rover

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Jersey Boys
Directed by Clint Eastwood

I’ll start with an admission. Several years ago, when I first encountered a listing for “Jersey Boys” on stage, I read the description of the show and just thought it was a generic story about a bunch of kids who formed a band and made it to the big time. I’m not sure exactly how much time passed before I later realized it’s about the (mostly) true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. And it’s an appealing story – a bunch of kids with talent, and a side order of mob connection, who end up in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, albeit after a few problems along the way.

So, my own original ignorance of the source material seems to be matched by people I’ve heard expressing surprise at a musical being directed by Clint Eastwood. It’s like the underlying sentiment is something like “What’s Dirty Harry doing in musical land?” But Eastwood is an accomplished musician and composer, has previously directed a film about jazz musician Charlie Parker (“Bird”) and has written or co-written his own film scores for years. This isn’t a guy who’s disconnected from music.

The other thing that’s worth noting in that regard is that “Jersey Boys” doesn’t follow the pattern or style of many/most “musicals.” This isn’t a film in which people break into song, spontaneously, while doing other things. There are no scenes where the leads start to sing and then background actors fall into step, mysteriously knowing all the words and dance steps. Similarly, none of the dialog or narrative storytelling is told through song. This is a musical only in the sense that it’s a film, based on a stage show, about a group of people who become music legends – with the only time they sing being when they’re recording or performing.

I enjoyed the film – the characters are interesting and, as stated, it’s an inherently appealing story as these kids break into the music business. Some of the details, from a historical perspective, seem a little morphed or blended together – but the general sequence of events seems reasonably accurate. For example, there’s dramatic tension in the story as Frankie and composer/bandmate Bob Gaudio strike a side deal that doesn’t involve their colleagues. This causes tension around the idea of whether it’s all about the band or about certain members of the band. In reality, Frankie Valli made solo recordings during that early period that don’t make an appearance in the film. So there’s certainly artistic license in adapting the band’s biography for the stage and now film.

There’s a solid pace and energy to the film but it’s still not a stage show. There are no live performances of either song or music and so there’s that greater distance from the material that a film audience has as compared to a live theater audience. That’s not a bad thing, and the film will deliver the same performance every time viewed, but for those who are comparing it to the experience of watching the same show on stage, the outcome is bound to be different.

Several of the central performances are by actors who played, and in some cases originated, the parts on stage. And it’s fascinating how well they recreate their roles on film. Aside from the differences in the medium, as expressed above, the nature of performance varies enormously too. Where stage plays, and especially shows, often call for “big” performances, film tends to reward relative subtlety and it’s not a transition that all actors can successfully make. And for regular film fans, there’s a fun performance by Christopher Walken as the guys’ local mob boss.

All in all, it’s a fun film, albeit without quite the same energy as a live show. But it’s also a story that doesn’t feel much like a musical, so if musicals generally aren’t your thing but you like this kind of music, you’ll probably dig “Jersey Boys.”

 

The Rover
Directed by David Michôd

Another of this week’s openings is about as different as one can get from anything upbeat and musical. “The Rover” is a dark, slow and brooding story set in a vaguely post-apocalyptic Australia. We’re not really sure quite what has happened to society, but it’s clear that all is not well and there’s a prevailing sense of survival of the fittest being the way of the world.

What’s amusing, in that sense, is the setting. One can’t help but think that there are locations in the interior of Australia that don’t require a lot of set decoration to fit into that premise. It made me wonder what the experience would be like for somebody who strolled in a couple of minutes late, missed the line on the screen that set the stage, and just thought Australia was an exceptionally rough place to live.

Guy Pearce plays a loner whose car gets stolen and who isn’t too happy about it. In the official press materials, he’s described as a “hardened, ruthless ex-soldier” which is odd because the character doesn’t really come across that way. He seems more like a jaded, self-sufficient pragmatist – the kind of guy who has been dealt a bad hand, but who’s also surrounded by others in the same predicament, and who will do what he needs to do, moment by moment, to get what he needs. If those two descriptions don’t seem that different, think of it in terms of the difference between a man who will shoot somebody just to make sure the gun works a man who will only shoot somebody who’s in his way and hindering his progress.

Pearce is good in the role – he has one of those faces that can deliver an entire monolog with a wordless stare. He’s supported, in an odd but successful piece of casting, by English actor Robert Pattinson playing an American living in Australia. Pattinson’s character is also interesting as he seems a little slow on the uptake but is perhaps a little more capable than he lets on.

“The Rover” is a film that has less to do with storytelling than it has to do with watching these men function and, barely, relate to each other. The premise of a man attempting to recover his car is almost the entire plot and it serves only to give us an excuse to ponder the characters and their assorted motivations. For much of the film we’re left wondering why Pearce’s character even cares enough about the car to bother to try and get it back – but he also expresses a certain dismay that people wouldn’t care about actions enough to react to them.

It’s a dark film and certainly not likely to appeal to those who like their films peppy and escapist. But there’s an interesting and simple honesty to it in the details, as we watch people dealing with a break down in society that doesn’t involve either zombies or roving street gangs of warpainted thunderdome inhabitants. In that sense it’s an interesting conversation starter about the way we might behave if, at the same time, nobody was watching very closely and if we felt like we had little to care about or to lose. This is a man who doesn’t have children to protect, who doesn’t have a light at the end of the tunnel to strive towards, and who simply has to make it from one day to the next, or not, at whatever level of comfort or personal fulfillment he can sustain.

About the author

Tony Sheppard

Tony is a Professor at Sacramento State, Co-Director of the Sacramento Film & Music Festival and a long-time writer, primarily on topics related to film and the film industry. He is an active supporter of the local arts community, an amateur photographer, and has an interest in architecture and urban planning topics. He is currently designing a 595 sq.ft. house on a very small infill lot in Sacramento.

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