This may come as a surprise to some of you, but I’m secretly a fan of musicals. I know, I know. Unbelievable, right? Well believe it. Movie musicals based on stage productions have had a rough go of it. Les Misérables, Rock of Ages, and Rent are all dire to various degrees. Clint Eastwood (yeah, that one) is the latest director to undertake this challenge, with his cinematic production of Jersey Boys, the musical depicting the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Jersey Boys follows Frankie (John Lloyd Young), guitarist and ne’er-do-well Tommy DeVito (Nick Piazza), gentle giant bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) as their music and the band that creates it evolves through the 60’s and 70’s. The smartest conceit of the film, which is a holdover from the stage musical’s book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who are also credited with this screenplay), is that the characters take turns narrating the story, by talking directly to the camera. It is a creative way to relay information, and also provides an added acting challenge for the actors – forcing them to react to information in the present, as well as in a nostalgic manner.
The cast is up to this – and many other – challenges. The main four are mostly great, and their musical performances are equally strong. Christopher Walken is present in the next-largest role as mobster Gyp DeCarlo, but his turn is nothing exceptional
Unfortunately most of the film is can similarly be described as “nothing exceptional.” The movie moves so slowly through its narrative, which is crazy considering that it spans decades. The characters show little development over the years, apart from a brand-new toddler here or a nauseating fake goatee there. The movie just feels flat. Even the narrative structure – which promises differing perspectives on certain situations – never really pays off.
This is a common problem with stage adaptations. You’re moving from a very big, exciting medium to one that tends to be more subdued and cerebral – especially under the supervision of a guy like Eastwood, whose directorial goal since the highly enjoyable Gran Torino seems to be to innovate and offend as little as possible. The energy inherent in a successful broadway musical is difficult to translate to the screen. Or at least it was in this case.
Jersey Boys is perfectly fine, I suppose. It will give you a sense of what went on behind the microphone, but I can almost guarantee you won’t leave the theater thinking about what you’ve just seen. Unless you’re thinking about the end credits/musical number/curtain call. That was Eastwood’s only instance of inspired direction, and it’s certainly not unique in the world of musicals. Ball’s in your court now, Will Gluck. Maybe Jamie Foxx and Quvenzhané Wallis can really make Annie sing (punned it!).