Saturday, June 21, 2014

Jersey Boys

Grade: 50/C+

Why did Clint Eastwood want to direct Jersey Boys? The veteran actor and filmmaker has certainly had his share of strange projects (see: Space Cowboys, in which old people are astronauts and that fact is deemed hilarious), but few that seem as ill-suited to his classical touch as a Four Seasons jukebox musical. Released about five years past the 2005 musical’s movie adaptation sell-by date, Eastwood’s take on the movie musical is an odd bird, his most engaging film in some time yet clearly helmed by the wrong director.

The film stars the original Broadway production’s star John Lloyd Young in his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli, born Castelluccio, a New Jersey kid with an extraordinary falsetto voice and a dream to be “as big as Sinatra.” Frankie and his hoodlum pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) have mob connections (including Christopher Walken as a boss who loves Frankie’s voice), but it isn’t until they meet young songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) that they first start to take off.

With bassist/bass voice Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and under the guidance of producer and songwriter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), they become the Four Seasons, recording pop classics like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” taking the charts by storm. But behind the scenes, things aren’t as carefree as their songs: Frankie’s commitments to the road ruin his marriage and his relationship with his daughter, the voice-songwriter partnership of Frankie and Bob rankles Tommy’s ego and marginalizes Nick, and Tommy’s debts threaten to tear them apart.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s screenplay sticks closely to the book of the show, but it doesn’t translate well to the screen. On stage, the transitions between song and behind-the-music story are more fluid, and the emphasis is clearly on the music. On screen, it no longer feels like a musical, more closely resembling shapeless music biopics in the Ray or Walk the Line mold. That shift in focus changes it from a show about great musicians and their story behind the scenes and turns it into a movie about a bunch of guys who had personal problems, stopped liking each other and, oh, by the way, also sang great songs.

Besides, the appeal of Jersey Boys on stage is that the audience is swept up in the energy of the live performances of songs they know and love. It’s not uncommon to hear stories of audiences singing and dancing along with the show at most productions. Remove it from that context and put it in the multiplex, where singing and dancing along is strictly forbidden unless you’re at a Rocky Horror screening, and you’ve removed the show’s urgency. The focus is instead drawn to familiar, drawn-out shouting matches between the Seasons, between Frankie and his stock character wife (and blank sympathy device of a daughter).

Still, if Jersey Boys absolutely had to be turned into a movie, it’s hard to think of a style more at odds with the show than Eastwood’s. Watching Jersey Boys is a surreal experience, as Eastwood’s typically stately aesthetic is constantly at war with material that demands a more animated approach. Eastwood and his regular cinematographer Tom Stern give the film the same desaturated palette that’s been their look of choice since Mystic River, a bad fit for a film that should pop off the screen (think the way Tom Hanks’s directorial effort That Thing You Do! looks). It ends up draining an already fairly low-stakes story of its energy, not helped by the film’s slack pacing (in stark contrast to the show’s zippiness).

It’s a shame, since some of Eastwood’s instincts are quite good. He keeps the show’s multiple-narrators device, with each of the Four Seasons chiming in with their perspective on their rise to stardom. It’s a touch that’s been lazily and inaccurately compared by some to Rashomon but skews closer to the De Niro/Pesci narration in Casino, with speaking-to-the-camera fourth-wall breaks deliberately modeled after those in Goodfellas and Scorsese’s short It’s Not Just You, Murray! Eastwood also uses deliberately artificial old Hollywood sets and scenarios (whasamatter Italian gangsters, rear projection in a car) in a way that parallels the slick, infectious pop sound of the Four Seasons music as their real-life troubles threaten to burst the bubble.

On top of that, Eastwood himself is a very musical director (let’s ignore his previous outing starring in a musical, the disastrous Paint Your Wagon): his love of jazz is best exemplified by his Charlie Parker biopic Bird, but music also helps drive genre efforts like Play Misty for Me and prestige films like Mystic River. With Jersey Boys, some have said that the songs carry the musical sequences past Eastwood’s pale direction, but in truth, his confident, unshowy montage and compositions serve the musical performances beautifully. Compared to Tom Hooper and Rob Marshall’s inept framing and editing of the musical sequences in Les Miserables and Nine, Jersey Boys looks like a Vincente Minnelli film.

But it isn’t enough to get past the weird disjunction between the blatant artificiality of the movie Eastwood wants to make and his somber style, which sits on the damn movie. And while Eastwood’s decision to cast Broadway veterans and non-stars for the major roles mostly pays off, it winds up failing him in the key role of Frankie Valli. John Lloyd Young is a fine actor, but he’s not a naturally expressive one, and he doesn’t have the star power required to make Valli work as a character on screen (perhaps Eastwood could have pulled a Marni Nixon and dubbed Young’s singing over a more charismatic actor).

Jersey Boys isn’t as righteously embalmed as Invictus, Hereafter or J. Edgar, thank goodness, and it’s the closest thing to a pure populist movie from him in the better part of a decade. It’s also a more personal statement than it appears at first glance, with Valli’s longevity as a performer mirroring Eastwood’s own (“like that Bunny on TV, I just keep goin’ and goin’ and goin’…”). But the film rarely taps into the passion heard in the music, or even the passion Valli expresses late in the film for it. It’s a vibrant project in theory, a muted one in practice.

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  1. Good review Max. Wish I liked this more. Better yet, wish I checked out the play beforehand. Might just do that now.

    1. Thanks, man. There's so much going for it that I really wanted to give it a marginal pass, but Clint's just wrong for this material. I wrote at length about movie musical problems as of late for Indiewire (, and if this is the best we can do, yikes.

      I wouldn't list "Jersey Boys" as one of my favorite musicals – it's kind of light and thin by nature – but it is a lot of fun live. Check it out.