JERSEY BOYS Movie Review – A Sombre Take On The Jukebox Musical
Clint Eastwood has been considering making a musical for quite a while. The Hollywood legend originally sought to tackle the genre around the time that his biopic J. Edgar had finished production. First, he wanted to remake A Star Is Born with Beyonce in the lead role, but her pregnancy apparently forced the pop superstar to drop out and delay the movie’s production. Then, as things fell apart, he set his eyes on the jukebox musical Jersey Boys instead — which finally reaches cinema screens this weekend.
An adaptation of the Broadway show that first hit the stage in 2005, the film is a look at the rise and fall of the seminal rock ‘n’ roll act The Four Seasons. It recounts how the band’s four members – Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) – came to break away from their New Jersey neighborhoods and into the US music scene. However, the trials and tribulations of a famous rock group eventually cause rifts in the band and strains on their families – not to mention tensions with the local mob.
Clint Eastwood might seem somewhat at odds with the musical genre. It’s not only because he is most notable for his stoic acting as The Man With No Name in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns or the tough Dirty Harry in the thriller of the same name. It’s also because he has built an impressive resume of gloomy directing work from the brooding Mystic River to the heart-wrenching Million Dollar Baby. And those who think he seems at odds with the musical genre are sadly correct. Eastwood might be one of the leading talents in the movie industry, but Jersey Boys is simply not a film that matches his approach.
Typically drained of colour and drenched with shadows (it looks like the movie has been filmed in a dingy nightclub bathroom) Clint Eastwood is not necessarily interested in the glitz and glamour that the eponymous Jersey boys earned as their musical act The Four Seasons. His desire is to capture the everyday blue-collar dramas of the four boys; street kids who have escaped the New Jersey suburbs and are now struggling with new-found success as they live their lives on the road.
Eastwood’s take on Jersey Boys is so low-key at times that you might even call it a kitchen sink drama. Much of the actions plays out in hotel suites, living areas, street corners and dressing rooms. It is telling that his adaptation opens not with a rousing musical number – in fact, no music is used for much of the opening act — but a quiet scene in a Jersey barbershop. It sets the tone for the ensuing two-and-a-bit hours.
Stripping Jersey Boys right down to its bare bones is a move so bold that it is almost commendable. But the problem is that Jersey Boys’ screenplay was produced by the very people whose work Eastwood was trying to distance the movie from. Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman (the latter wrote Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan and hasn’t had a screenplay made in over 20 years) worked on both the show and the film.
You can almost feel a tug-of-war between the writers and director watching Jersey Boys. The former seemingly want to recreate the snappy spirit of their stage show; the latter evidently hopes to make the kind of sombre drama he is famous for. It makes for a film that really doesn’t know what it wants to be. The script has moments of humor, vibrancy and once the music does kick in it’s difficult to resist the urge to tap your feet. But in a beat this can make a clunky shift down into the kind of heavy drama you might have seen in an episode of The Sopranos — only far more cliched, and far less compelling.
This problem somewhat extends to the ensemble. Clint Eastwood allegedly hand-picked the four principle cast members as he traveled the country watching different versions of the Jersey Boys show. These are mostly actors, therefore, who spent years of their lives perfecting their characters on stage – where acting is more loud and theatrical to suit the venue. Making the transition to film, where the big screen not only allows you to be more subtle but essentially demands it, has not been easy for them. The dramatic moments between the band members rarely feel authentic and some cast members are prone to melodrama in their roles. Perhaps the only exceptions are Michael Lomenda, who is easily the star of the show as Nick Massi, and an underused performance by screen veteran Christopher Walken as a powerful Jersey boss.
But what of the music itself? Many of the people going to see Jersey Boys when it hits theaters this weekend will do so to witness the cast perform the soundtrack’s tremendous rock ‘n’ roll songs like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and Working My Way Back To You. Clint Eastwood only sporadically introduces music into his drama — the one and only ‘musical scene’ in the old fashioned sense comes during the end credits — and when he does his restrained technique doesn’t give them the rousing soar that they deserve. But the four leads, in spite of the aforementioned flaws, are each tremendous singers and do the popular tunes justice.