Why are there no black pop and doo-wop acts in “Jersey Boys”?

ImagePlease consider the headline as it was intended, a question which group sourcing may help me answer. If I was trolling for controversy-driven pageviews, I’d have posted “Is Eastwood’s ‘Jersey Boys’ racist?”

Clint Eastwood’s film of the Broadway bio-musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons follows them from 1951 through their 1991 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

And until that induction, where there are a couple of black faces in the ranks of reporters covering the event, this is a racially monochromatic film. Sure, there’s that token gay guy who influenced their career. But how can you cover doo wop vocal groups in the ’50s, pre-Beatles rock and pop, without touching on the desegregation that was part and parcel of that scene? Youth culture trumped conservative desegregated culture, in that regard.

Go to the Wikipedia entry for the group, and it firmly places them within that ’50s vocal group tradition — Four Freshman, the Platters, etc. As they broke big AFTER Elvis, after Chuck Berry, you’d think they might occasionally share a bill with other performers and vocal ensembles, black and white. The film suggests that they were more of a band — playing instruments — so perhaps that explains how I couldn’t find a lot of showbills that make this point. Perhaps booking more than one vocal group wasn’t smart booking back then, and segregation kept guys like Bo Diddley and Jackie Wilson and Sam Cooke off of bills with white acts during this era, as often as not. Overseas, it was a different story.

Frankie Lyman, Little Richard and others shared bills with white acts on the big screen and on tour. Not sure how common that was.

Why not the Four Seasons? Their heydays were early ’60s. They headlined once they had a couple of hits, and they had a lot of hits. Did they never share the bill with black acts as they were coming up, or with lesser known black acts after The Four Seasons were a big deal?

Your typical rock biography of that era is a more integrated affair. The Stones were eager to bring their favorite black acts — their inspirations — to the bill. The Beatles, playing it safe, weren’t known for that.

But look at any Elvis bio-pic, at “Great Balls’o Fire,” at “La Bamba,” at “The Buddy Holly Story” (Buddy Holly accidentally booked into the Apollo). The bills were integrated, young people being more receptive of this idea than their parents.

Which is why the whiter than white “Jersey Boys” calls attention to itself for showing none of the black (and white) street corner singing context that launched them.

By the time Valli, with or without his Four Seasons, was a ’70s lounge act, I wouldn’t expect integrated audiences, integrated show bills. He was appealing to people too young for Sinatra, Dino or Jerry Vale (their parents’ favorites), but fans who grew up in that Italian-American crooner tradition he was trying to be part of.

And there is clear evidence that as an oldies act, Frankie and the Four Seasons toured with black groups in the late 70s through the 80s.

Clint Eastwood took some foolish abuse from Spike Lee when Lee demanded to know where the black Marines were on his Iwo Jima movies. Historically, there weren’t any on the island during the fight.

But here, you’ve got to wonder how or why the director of “Bird” failed to see  the need to pay any regard to these “Jersey Boys'”  musical context, and the vast majority of their vocal group peers. An oversight on Eastwood’s part? Actual historical truth, because perhaps The Four Seasons or their audience wouldn’t stand for sharing the bill with black acts? I am looking for evidence, one way or the other, and not finding enough to reach a conclusion.

The movies and TV stereotype Italian Americans as much as any ethnic group, and among those stereotypes is the suggestion, from “The Godfather” to “The Jersey Shore,” that  this ethnic group is racist. Is Eastwood embracing that the way his movie embraces the talking with the hands, diving into pasta, peacocking in showy clothes, switching from English to Italian stereotypes? I wonder.

About Roger Moore

Movie Critic, formerly with McClatchy-Tribune News Service, Orlando Sentinel, published in Spin Magazine, The World and now published here, Orlando Magazine, Autoweek Magazine
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