Two Quartets: Jersey Boys & The Last Sentence

by Armond White
Sex and politics in two new biopics.

During the recording of the 1963 hit record “Walk Like a Man,” members of the New Jersey quartet The Four Seasons stop to argue the song’s merits. It’s fake history, like most of the movie Jersey Boys (surely the discussion would have occurred when the group first read the lyrics), but the studio setting contrives dramatic tension about the recording’s outcome. Director Clint Eastwood wants us to think that pop-culture fate hinged on a discussion of macho tradition among Italian-American young men who are also attempting to be artists.

Figuring out “sexual politics” in an era before that term existed is the closest Jersey Boys gets to rising above backstage musical clichés. The story of The Four Seasons’ formation and eventual breakup is told in conventional terms to suit pop and ethnic nostalgia. The fractured narrative begins in the 1950s, suggesting a flashback (group members occasionally address the audience with personal perspectives), then seems to get ahead of its own history and has to backtrack on itself to play out the turning point that led to the group’s collapse: Lead singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) ends his friendship with manager-bassist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) causing the other members, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), to splinter.

But Jersey Boys only skims the macho ideas boys learn in ethnic American culture, just as it glosses over the music-industry practices that trap them. Cadillac Records, Darnell Martin’s 2007 history of the Chess Records label, remains the sharpest, most revealing movie yet made about the record industry, intertwining the personal ambitions of black artists and white entrepreneurs — a perspective that included sex and economics. Jersey Boys stays unsatisfyingly simplistic. For instance, it never explores how Valli’s “girly” falsetto came to express feelings even tough guys would snap fingers and tap toes to — adding ironic wit to “Walk Like a Man.”

Jersey Boys is as apolitical (and unemotional and unerotic) as a pop-music biopic can be. It somehow buries the teenage impulses — the emotional secrets — that drive pop music and its marketing. Valli’s commitment to DeVito (symbolized by a handshake, “a Jersey contract”) suggests bonds of masculine sympathy that are unexplored — just sentimentalized. Only the fact of the Four Seasons’ hits and their historical place in the pop charts separates Jersey Boys from the overused, overfamiliar, and shallow ethnic character traits that Sopranos producer David Chase institutionalized — and tried to further exploit in his feature-film directorial debut Not Fade Away (2012), another pitiful mix of pop-music nostalgia and ethnic stereotypes.

This unimaginative approach feels as if Eastwood didn’t really want to tell the Four Seasons’ story. It’s not the jazz history that Eastwood is known to favor, as in his Charlie Parker biography Bird or the John Coltrane–Johnny Hartman collaborations he shoehorned into his mawkish adultery drama The Bridges of Madison County. The Four Seasons were a commercial derivative of the black urban singing style called Doo-Wop that inspired white ethnic pop groups like the Bronx-based Dion and the Belmonts (for some, a more powerful, authentic sound than The Four Seasons). Eastwood’s view of this inauthentic pop music is so based on replicating the hit Broadway musical that it merely offers what’s slick and synthetic about it, starting with Christopher Walken playing a mob godfather to Valli and DeVito and following with a rogues’ gallery of post-Sopranos ethnic types.

In Jersey Boys, clichés replace exuberance. Rock-music movies usually don’t separate the two, finding something vital in both, but vitality has seeped out of Lloyd Young’s Valli impersonation and Eastwood stages the performances without love, vision, or excitement. His curtain-call finale fails to meld Broadway into Hollywood; the oddball gimmick fails to deconstruct showbiz politics.

***

Jan Troell’s The Last Sentence, a biopic of Swedish journalist and philosopher Torgny Karl Segerstedt, gives its protagonist’s politics (he publicly opposed Hitler’s Nazi regime) equal weight with his sexual life (he openly conducted an affair with his publisher’s wife while his own marriage lingered). Troell’s point is that political and private morality don’t necessarily combine. The film begins with a Segerstedt quote: “No human being can withstand close scrutiny.”

Troell sets himself a difficult project, and his artistry sees him through a film that shifts moods and tenses (from energetic newspaper saga to domestic drama, historical news footage to metaphysical analysis). Having made 1997’s Hamsun (about novelist Knut Hamsun, and one of the finest of all film biographies), Troell merges the personal and the political once again. As a portrait of Sweden’s national character, The Last Sentence accepts the ambivalence of individual characters — especially through a quartet of remarkable, complex performances. Segerstedt (Jesper Christensen), his mistress Maja (Pernilla August), his wife Puste (Ulla Skoog), and publisher Axel (Bjorn Granath) do more than maneuver open marriages; they inscribe the anguish of mature adults unsatisfied with themselves and the world. Troell does honor to a Scandinavian heritage that includes Henrik Ibsen, August Strindberg, and Ingmar Bergman.

The Last Sentence also advances our understanding of personal politics. Segerstedt’s controversial 1933 editorial ended with a rhetorical declaration of war: “Herr Hitler is an insult.” But it was also an expression of ego; and Troell, an artist not a politician, dares explore the depths of that egotism. (Showing mature people with egos and sex lives is rare; no such approach was risked in the glib hagiographies Good Night and Good Luck and Che.) Troell’s rigor is also evident in the film’s vibrant, intense black-and-white images. He does not separate the realism of newsreel footage from his psychological inquiry. A master of atmospheric exteriors and expressive interiors, Troell combines esthetics and morality.

— Film critic Armond White is author of The Resistance: Ten Years of Pop Culture That Shook the World and the forthcoming What We Don’t Talk About When We Talk About the Movies.

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