Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken
Genre: Drama, Musical
Opens: 17 July 2014
Rating: NC16 (Coarse Language) / 134 mins
A great musical is a labour of love, of passion. Unfortunately, legendary filmmaker Clint Eastwood seems to have been lacking both when he agreed to direct this big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway show. Perhaps he wasn’t a fan of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, the 1960s artists whose life and music are chronicled and celebrated in the jukebox musical Jersey Boys. Most disturbingly, perhaps he is not a fan of the genre and that is why he sucked the life out of it.
Jersey Boys takes a good forty minutes for its story to really take off, playing as a re-imagining of every New York Italian American coming-of-age tempted-by-the-mafia story ever told. Frankie (Lloyd Young) has two main talents, singing and getting in trouble with best friend Tommy DeVito (Piazza). They eventually find talented songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bergen) and, together with singer Nick Massi (Lomenda), form a quartet and score a #1 hit with Sherry. Their overnight success and Tommy’s bad decisions are Valli’s ultimate undoing, before the uplifting ending one would expect from this kind of film.
While Lloyd Young shines as the king of falsetto, his Valli is merely a shadow of a character. Jersey Boys never fully explores the mind and heart of its protagonist. We’re meant to feel for him because he’s the star, not because we really get to see what makes him tick. Piazza manages to make his character so unpleasant that it’s almost counter-productive; every time his Tommy is onscreen, you’ll wish you could fast-forward his scenes.
Finally, let’s make this clear. This is not a musical, even if it’s based on one. It may have kept a couple of theatrical elements (such as the main characters breaking the fourth window to address the audience from time to time, like they do in the stage show), but the end result is simply a biopic with musical numbers (played straight, performed by the band while on stage), in the vein of Walk The Line, Ray, and many others. It’s lacking that show-stopping moment, that creativity of using the music to advance the story, to excite and inspire the audience to want to be part of that extraordinary world.
Summary: Only the end credits give us a sense of what could’ve been, of the energy that was waiting – in vain – to be released by the talented cast.
Rating: 2 out of 5 stars
Jukebox musicals – musicals constructed out of an existing catalogue of songs – don’t typically boast the strongest of plots. Most of the time, story and character have to get out of the way for yet another toe-tapping number. To some extent, this applies to Broadway smash hit Jersey Boys, which has been playing to packed houses since 2005. But it’s also easy to see why director Clint Eastwood was drawn to the material: there’s a comparative depth of character to this rags-to-riches true story of four boys escaping their mob-ruled neighbourhood in Jersey through the music they made together. Eastwood mines this very well for his film adaptation, although he does lose a little of the musical’s energy and spark along the way.
Frankie (Lloyd Young) is an apprentice hairdresser with the voice of an angel. Everyone thinks so, from local mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Walken) to two-bit hustler Tommy DeVito (Piazza). Tommy cobbles together a band, anointing Frankie as lead singer, with Nick (Lomenda) as bass vocalist. Playing in dives and rundown bars, it looks like they’re never going to hit it big and get out of Jersey. But the arrival on the scene of songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bergen) changes everything. His music provides the re-christened Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons with a string of radio hits, but also upsets the dynamics within the group – which starts to slowly disintegrate even as its star rises.
In Eastwood’s hands, Jersey Boys can sometimes feel a little flat, like soda left out for too long on a hot day. You know something fizzy was once there, and the taste of it remains – but it’s also faintly disappointing. That’s largely because the film doesn’t quite seem to know what to do with its most crowd-pleasing musical numbers. They sound great (and are mainly shot with live vocals), but some are left to play in the background, while others – like Sherry and Walk Like A Man – are filmed in so straightforward a fashion that they barely register before they’re over. This curious lack of musicality – particularly odd given Eastwood’s own passion for music – is particularly keenly felt in the final third of the film, when Jersey Boys becomes Jersey Boy, and the story’s focus narrows squarely down to Frankie and his limply sketched-out relationship with wayward daughter Francine.
But Eastwood does a decent job with character development, even though he’s forced to grapple with some plainly paper-thin creations. (Why is mobster Gyp DeCarlo treated with such reverence when the only thing he can do to help with Tommy’s growing debts is serve as a kooky mediator?) Tommy, in particular, is a fascinating character – he struts through the first half of the film with a confident nonchalance that belies his passion and belief in Frankie – something even his band-mates doubt, through all their years of working together. It’s why the interplay amongst the characters works so well: Tommy grows anxious when Frankie and Bob cut a deal with each other, Bob snaps when Tommy gets the group in financial trouble, Nick drifts silently through it all until he can stand it no longer.
As always, Eastwood is remarkably canny in selecting his cast. Three of the four Seasons – Lloyd Young, Bergen and Lomenda – all come with theatre chops, having performed in the stage version of the show at some point in their careers. In fact, Lloyd Young – with his distinctive high notes and vocal trills – originated his part on Broadway, and it shows. Frankie is easily the most opaque character – we’re told his story; he never gets a chance to tell it to the camera like his compatriots do – but Lloyd Young shades a lot of sad nobility into this man who chooses to dig himself into a hole for a friend: a decision that, ultimately, costs him his family. The other standout is Piazza. Diehard fans might have railed at Piazza’s lack of stage experience, but his onscreen charisma is what Tommy sorely needs – and no doubt what Eastwood saw in him.
Put it all together, and Jersey Boys emerges as a solid if somewhat stiff adaptation of the musical. It misses a few beats, and loses a little bit of its emotional (and actual) rhythm along the way. But Eastwood keeps the character drama humming along well enough, and really makes it all work in the end: from a rousing performance of Frankie’s first solo hit, Can’t Take My Eyes Off You, in which he finally gets his long-awaited horn section; through to a reunion many years later that proves surprisingly emotional. By the time the credits roll, and the entire cast cuts loose in an utterly joyous rendition of December 1963 (Oh, What A Night), you’ll find yourself willing to forgive anything – including the film’s occasional pacing and musical sins.
Summary: A solid, thoughtful, if somewhat stiff adaptation of the rather more energetic Broadway musical.
RATING: 3 out of 5 stars