The notion of Clint Eastwood directing a film based on the hit musical Jersey Boys may be puzzling to many. The 84-year-old director and actor has specialised in crime dramas, Westerns and sports films. Why now the tumultuous tale of the 1960s pop group the Four Seasons?
Yet it shouldn't feel so strange. Eastwood composes many of the scores to his films and his previous work includes the Charlie Parker biopic Bird (1988) and the country-music drama Honkytonk Man (1982).
Jersey Boys is no mundane jukebox musical since it intersperses the Four Seasons' hits ("Can't Take My Eyes Off You", "Sherry", "Walk Like a Man") with the group's backstory, which is rich in betrayal, crime and revenge as four impoverished New Jersey musicians rise to fame and record sales of 100 million worldwide.
Eastwood doesn't flinch from depicting the Four Seasons' ties to the Mob, the prison past of half the group and the fallout that stardom unleashes on family life.
John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of the Four Seasons' lead vocalist Frankie Valli on Broadway, before going on to play him in the West End where Jersey Boys has been running since 2008, reprises the part in the film.
He admits that Eastwood initially struck him as a surprising choice of director: "It did feel odd and I think it's because Jersey Boys has an interesting, strange communication problem when it comes to its legacy. It won best musical at the Tony Awards and people call it a jukebox musical. But it's unlike any other jukebox musical. When you look what Jersey Boys is – a drama about a band – you see the connection of Clint Eastwood to a Broadway musical in this instance makes complete sense. There is a compelling biographical story. If you just heard the music you wouldn't necessarily know that a bunch of Mobbed-up boys from New Jersey were responsible for it. That underbelly, that shadow within the light, is Clint's signature style."
Eastwood retains the Four Seasons' songs but his Jersey Boys plays up the drama. "It's not about the music," maintains Erich Bergen who portrays Bob Gaudio, Four Seasons' band member and co-writer. "It's about four guys living their lives. These four guys happened to be in one of the great rock'n'roll bands of all time. The media call this a musical but that's not really what this is. This isn't Grease or West Side Story. No one breaks out into song."
Mamma Mia! was a recent musical film where people broke into song to stellar commercial effect, but the flop all-star movie versions of Nine and Rock of Ages illustrated the perils of bringing musicals into celluloid being. In this case Eastwood has eschewed celebrity casting, instead plucking three of his four Jersey Boys from the stage show (the fourth, Vincent Piazza, who plays guitarist Tommy DeVito, plays Lucky Luciano on Boardwalk Empire). In fact, the most famous actor in Jersey Boys is Christopher Walken, who has a supporting role as a Mobster.
Lloyd Young is grateful that Clint kept the faith. "The idea of a Broadway actor who originates a role being pushed aside for someone else in the Hollywood film adaptation is one that unfortunately has come true more often than Broadway fans would like it to have been," he says. "For me there was a very uncomfortable feeling of, 'I'm on the cast album, I won the Tony Award, this is a role that means a lot. How will it feel to go through the rest of my life knowing someone has taken this role on screen and that someone isn't me?' I'm very relieved that someone is me!"
Prior to Eastwood coming on board, Jersey Boys had a convoluted journey to the screen. Martin Scorsese was among those reputedly keen to make the film before Iron Man director Jon Favreau signed on to film a script by screenwriter John Logan (Skyfall) that supposedly significantly deviated from its stage roots.
When that version fell through, the film was assumed dead only for Eastwood to revive it. "Clint went to see the show and loved it so much that he went back to the stage script," says Bergen. "That was very smart of him. That's no dig at John Logan, who is a brilliant writer, but what Clint fell in love with was what we all felt when we saw Jersey Boys for the first time."
Bergen was personally chosen for the film by the real-life Bob Gaudio, who told Eastwood that Bergen was the actor who most resembled him. Jersey Boys, in not being standard blockbuster fare, is perceived as a gamble for release during the summer season, but Bergen says that's in keeping with its history. "When I did the first national American tour of Jersey Boys they kept being worried that it wasn't going to work – and it kept working. I think we have the same thing with the film. There is so much fear because this show is so beloved by so many. We all had our doubts, not because of Clint Eastwood but that Hollywood was going to mess it up. But there's relief – not just relief that they didn't screw it up but that Clint Eastwood made a fantastic film." Bergen goes further: "The fact that Warner Brothers is giving summer moviegoers this big, deep, Clint Eastwood film is the first sign that we're trusting the audience. Us being hired to do our parts from the stage version falls right in line with that."
Eastwood himself makes a cameo appearance in the film when a short clip from his 1960s Western TV series Rawhide is shown. "It was actually my suggestion," says Bergen. "I was in a scene watching TV and there was nothing on. They were going to add in special effects later. Jokingly, I said to Clint, 'You should put on Rawhide'. He smiled and walked away and went behind the camera. Then I see the movie and it's in there!"
The Four Seasons themselves took some persuading to let their story be told on screen. "The Four Seasons, more than anyone, had stuff to hide," says Bergen. "So I don't think originally they were into letting this be seen and I know Frankie is still struggling with what stories are told and what stories aren't told. The flip side of that is that it has introduced his music to a whole new generation."
What does Valli make of the film? "Frankie in some ways would prefer that there be a documentary about him where he can set the record straight on the facts of his life," says Lloyd Young. He cites a scene in Jersey Boys when the Four Seasons are waiting to go on the prestigious Ed Sullivan Show only for news to break that Tommy DeVito has mired the band in debt: "Those two things didn't happen at the same time in Frankie's life. So when he was on set, he said, 'That's not how that happened'. But I think he's come to terms with the fact that because of dramatic licence, sometimes things overlap that might have happened in actual time at different points. Now I think Frankie's very happy. He seems very snobbish that his story has been turned into a movie by Clint Eastwood!"
'Jersey Boys' opens on 20 June