When I heard Clint Eastwood was directing the film version of the wildly successful and hugely entertaining Broadway musical “Jersey Boys,” I wondered:
Not that I thought the man whose face looks like it should be on the Mount Rushmore of Hollywood icons couldn’t handle the material. Mr. Eastwood, an accomplished composer himself, has proved to be one of the most versatile directors of the last 30-plus years. He did a sublime job with “Bird,” the 1988 biopic about Charlie Parker. Surely he could handle the rags-to-riches-to-rags story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
It just didn’t seem like there would be a lot of creative wriggle room, and I wondered why the now 84-year-old Eastwood, who probably doesn’t have another 20 films left in him, would devote himself to the material.
Concerns validated. At times the movie version of “Jersey Boys” captures the electric excitement of the musical, but for every soaring moment, there are 10 minutes of bickering or brooding.
For one of the few times in Eastwood’s career as a director, he seems indecisive about what kind of movie he wanted to make. Sometimes the characters step forward, break the fourth wall and address the camera — looking back on the very moment they’re in and giving their interpretation of what occurred. It’s a technique that works better on the stage, or even on a show such as “House of Cards.”
On other occasions, including a number that plays over the closing credits, “Jersey Boys” feels like a pure musical. Scenes in which the band gets inspiration for its name, or the title of a song, are so cartoonishly delivered, it’s as if Eastwood is saying, “I know and you know it didn’t really go down like this.”
For the first 40 minutes, though, “Jersey Boys” plays like a Scorsese knockoff period piece. Vincent Piazza’s Tommy DeVito is front and center as he struts around Jersey in the 1950s, telling us how he looked after Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and taught the kid everything he knows — including how to commit third-rate crimes. Christopher Walken does his Walken thing, spinning innocuous lines into something bizarrely mesmerizing, as Gyp DeCarlo, the local mob boss who tears up when he hears Frankie sing and acts as a kind of guardian devil for the boys as they rise through the ranks.
Eastwood gives us a nice feel for the era. It’s always fun to marvel at the boat-sized cars of the 1950s, and the way everyone smoked everywhere. As the story moves into the 1960s, the art of Andy Warhol appears on apartment walls, and of course, the main characters go through that whole hair-and-wardrobe metamorphosis, resulting in some ridiculous goatees and lapels. But we keep waiting for THE MUSIC.
The first breakthrough for the struggling singers comes when they partner up with songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and make him part of the band. It’s Gaudio who pens instant hits, from “Big Girls Don’t Cry” to “Walk Like a Man,” and when the Jersey boys hit the stage on career-making shows such as “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show,” we’re reminded of just how huge the Four Seasons were, especially in the years just before the British Invasion. Eastwood does a great job of re-creating the sets, the backstage environment, the technical equipment and the recording studios of the era. (He was there. A young Clint Eastwood even shows up on a TV screen in one scene.)
But then it’s back to another domestic squabble, with Frankie’s wife, Mary (Renee Marino), guzzling booze and yelling at Frankie about being an absentee father, or another episode involving Tommy seething with resentment over Frankie’s connection with Gaudio, or getting in deeper with a loan shark. There’s a lot of yelling and furniture-busting and storming out of rooms.
It feels as if the Four Seasons spent a half-decade struggling, about six months enjoying their success, and another decade fighting among themselves while their respective marriages fell apart. Even the comic relief scenes involve some pretty depressing scenarios. For a film about some of the most infectious and enduring pop music ever created, “Jersey Boys” has long stretches of joylessness.
John Lloyd Young won a Tony for his portrayal of Valli on Broadway, and he does a remarkable job of capturing that distinctive falsetto voice. But there’s no movie-star juice to his non-musical work. “Jersey Boys” devotes a fair amount of time to Frankie’s relationship with his daughter Francine. He sings “My Eyes Adored You” to her as a bedtime lullaby (which is kind of creepy and also anachronistic, seeing as how the song wasn’t written until about 10 years after the scene in question). Frankie tries to rescue Francine from her addictions. He tries to make up for all those years on the road. It should be a deeply moving subplot, but it comes across as something out of a made-for-TV movie.
If “Jersey Boys” was going to balance the music with a straight dramatic tone, why not address how the Four Seasons felt about the Beatles? Or how the public for the most part didn’t know two of the founding members were ex-cons? For a film that stretches to 134 minutes, it rarely scratches beneath the surface.
The music is great. The story sizzled on the stage. It rarely pops as a movie.
MPAA rating: R for language throughout. Two stars