Jersey Boys is an old-timer movie with old-timer music and an old-timer atmosphere.
So, I guess it makes sense for an old-timer like Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, J. Edgar, Invictus) to go about directing this adaptation of the popular Broadway show….with an old-timer state of the mind?
If that’s the case, it doesn’t quite work for the modern age.
Jersey Boys is the story of four friends who grow farther apart the more successful they get. Oh, and music.
What? Oh, that’s not what you were expecting? Spontaneous breakout into song and dance a la Footloose, Fame, or – dare I say it – High School Musical? Is that what you paid $10 for?
Sorry. Better luck next time.
Here’s the thing about Jersey Boys. It’s been hit pretty hard with criticisms about allegedly being a musical that doesn’t exactly emphasize the music. But cut Eastwood a break, who said that’s the kind of movie he was going for? Perhaps his goal was to create a drama using the idea of this iconic band and their music as a plot device. That’s totally okay.
But he doesn’t quite pull it off. Because Eastwood is going for the exact opposite of a fun, glamorous musical…the guy has been watching a lot of Goodfellas lately.
The atmosphere and tone of Jersey Boys is very ominous and dark throughout. Not morbid – it’s a story about The Four Seasons after all – but certainly foreboding. Indeed, early on before they achieved fame of astronomical levels, Jersey Boys tells of how Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, and Nick Massi risked run-ins with the law to get their way. Cue the dark color contrasts.
The direction Eastwood tries to take Jersey Boys results in a movie that is confusing and lacks a sense of clear…well, direction. Like the band’s members, Eastwood gets his priorities mixed up. First we believe the relationship between Valli and DeVito is the primary one, only to have the movie focus on songwriter Bob Gaudio for a short while, and then, to the audience’s relief, a small part to the spirit and soul of the band and their music.
Oh, and toss Valli’s family in there, the most frightening relationship in the film. Not only because Valli was seemingly never on good terms with his wife or kids before we get to yelling and frustration in the family, but because the film almost asks too much of us. We have to care about the band’s integrity, and then, out of nowhere, the film centers on Valli’s personal life, one part of which we are introduced to mere minutes before they are shockingly offed. It’s stressful to watch and even more stressful to understand what kind of movie we’re watching and who we have to care about when the film doesn’t do a good job at making us care for characters outside of the Seasons.
Which makes just about every scene without at least two band members in it pretty useless in a narrative sense.
Similar to The Social Network, Jersey Boys spends a lot of its time building up the tension between two best friends. It ultimately does a good job, as you can sort out who can handle the fame and who can’t, but the payoff isn’t nearly as rewarding as Network’s.
But when the band is together? The movie shines. No, they don’t break out in spontaneous song and dance with a multitude of dancing extras coming out of nowhere (save for the final memorable number), but Boys does a good job of portraying the impact that the band’s first hits had on them. You do learn the stories (however true) behind some of the songs, but a mere few are memorable origin stories.
The movie’s high points, however short they are, are when the band is on stage playing their tunes, and we are awash with nostalgia and fascination and the timeless music.
But while the band seemingly puts out No. 1 hit after No. 1 hit, Jersey Boys doesn’t do an amazing job conveying the band’s mounting success, save for bigger audiences, bigger stages, and more sophisticated dance moves. The movie lacks a certain amount of spectacle and ultimately doesn’t owe the band what it’s due.
Jersey Boys was cast well, with John Lloyd Young (in his first major role outside of an TV episode or two) and Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) leading the charge with memorable performances that are basically what we’ve come to expect from a 50s era film set on the East Coast, however exaggerated they may be. In short, their accents are on point. The legendary Christopher Walken and Mike Doyle provide fantastic performances, however brief they may be.
Boys moves along at a pretty brisk pace, partly – actually, mostly – due to some pretty merciless and sudden time gaps that catch you off guard. Without even stopping to catch our breath or pausing to download that latest Four Seasons song on iTunes, our protagonists are growing up, getting married, and getting beer bellies just when we’ve acclimated to where we are in the timeline. The movie is like a song without bridges or meaningful transition between its verses. Beware of whiplash.
But we do get an idea of how the band member’s lives are changing over the course of their success, and ultimately, that’s what the movie aims to do.
Thankfully, at the end of Jersey Boys when the band reunites in 1990 for a performance, each character tells us personally what their priorities were in the film. That’s Eastwood saving his butt, in case you couldn’t quite catch it in the film. But for a few minutes, the soul of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons is center stage, and it is wonderful.
In a Nutshell
Clint Eastwood attempts a mash up of different genres…and we are better off with a mash up of Frankie Valli hits. The story of The Four Seasons, and their music, is entertaining enough, but not all the notes are hit once you leave the theater.
7/10 or Would you pay ten bucks to listen to the music on your iPod?
Jersey Boys is rated R for language throughout
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erick Bergen, Michael Lomenda
Directed by Clint Eastwood
**note** This reviewer has not seen the stage play of Jersey Boys.