What a fascinating, enjoyable mess of a film! The saving grace of the film, of course, is that glorious music (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”), with a nearly irresistible hook of the classic rags-to-riches-and-off-to-who-knows-where story, in this case, the tale of the Four Seasons. Converting a jukebox musical into a hit on Broadway was challenging enough, but successful. Taking that musical and putting it on screen has proven a rather awkward fit.
For those who love the music and are curious about the story, that’s enough to see it. For many of the rest of us, it’s also a Clint Eastwood film, reason enough to be curious. While it may seem an uneasy fit to have the director of Unforgiven, Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby direct a musical, remember that the Western-star-turned-director is a music lover, a film score composer on a number of his films, and director of 1988’s Bird, on the life of jazz musician Charlie “Bird” Parker.
Yet loving music doesn’t a musical director make, and that’s part of the problem. Eastwood has clearly proven himself far more than a director of Westerns, but his oeuvre is deeply serious: think Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, Changeling, J. Edgar, Hereafter, Blood Work, and his newest work currently in post-production, American Sniper. Nary a hit song among them! Eastwood’s best work is characterized by an even, tense, almost fatalistic disposition, with an energy closer to No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh than the exuberance of a musical star.
The music of Jersey Boys is consistently uplifting in every meaning of the word, but it’s always fighting a slightly dark, artificially heightened world here. In most musicals, the central conceit of a world where music arises from almost nowhere is echoed by a deliberately affected world of large emotions, bright colors and décor, and an acting style that allows the move from “reality” to musical expression. That is flipped on its head here: the music (since it’s all performance and stays in the world of the film) isn’t allowed to break as free as it wants or needs to. It’s part of a rather downbeat story that even at its most successful peaks is fraught with argument, competition and tension. The world of the film, on the other hand, is more synthetic than the music. The not-quite-real world of the 1950s, the clichéd Italian-American sets, food and unending parade of b0dda-boom, bodda-bing talk—it’s hermetically sealed, cutting off a sense of real life, and draining the tale of a good percentage of the kick that comes with knowing this really happened.
Part of the problem is Eastwood’s tendency to recreate the recent past in amber. In Changeling, J. Edgar, and now this film, Eastwood takes known eras and moves them in the direction of Louis XIV’s court. It’s not so stylized at to be completely break off our conception of the time period, but it recreates it in a facsimile that we can’t really relate to. We observe the world far more than we’re drawn into it.
The look doesn’t help. Cinematographer Tom Stern is expert at creating a cool, reserved palette (every film named in the third paragraph was photographed by Stern). Jersey Boys has a yellow-brown cast, but it’s a grey-yellow-brown, not warm like a sepia-colored period piece. The occasional costume change brings some visual relief, but the joy of the music tends to clash with the look of the film.
Perhaps most disappointing is the lack of a key ingredient in a musical with this kind of score: it’s called pizzazz. There is a moment or two (especially in the creation of the title of “Big Girls Don’t Cry”) that lifts, but they ultimately only provide contrast to the rather weighty tone and feel of the rest of the film.
John Lloyd Young, winner of the Tony Award for the stage version, has nearly the same voice as Frankie Valli, though it’s a little less sweet. He’s fine as an actor, but unusually inexpressive for a performer, even in the most dramatic scenes. Young does manage to pull off the younger scenes (though if he can be seen as sixteen, I’m still 39), where an unwrinkled face and some teenage hutzpah work in his favor. But the more mature scenes seem to lose their fire. The film is stolen by Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, an overly confident and oftentimes loathsome creature who got things going with the group that eventually became the Four Seasons. It’s also a great platform for Christopher Walken to “go Mafia” successfully as an influential mob leader.
Deciding in what voice to present a story is often a challenge: first-person, second, third, or something else. Here we have all the members of the group directly address the camera as they tell certain parts of the story. That may have worked well on stage when you have a live audience, but breaking the fourth wall is a dicey choice. We get used to it as viewers, but part of me wanted the scriptwriter and director to find another way of showing me what they wanted me to know and feel rather than telling me.
Then there’s the credit sequence at the end. I flashed back to Slumdog Millionaire, and the comparison wasn’t in the newer film’s favor. Not quite sure what was advanced by doing that.
When all is said and done, however, one’s enjoyment of the film will likely be predicated upon one’s enjoyment of the music. With the smallest apologies to those who’ve seen the film and paid close attention, it’s the film’s ace in the hole.