Clint Eastwood has proven himself to not only be one of the best actor-turned-directors, but one of the best directors overall working today. Even though some of his filmography may not be as impressive as one might hope, when he hits, he hits a homerun, and he’s done it enough times to make any upcoming Clint Eastwood film worth being excited about. In an unexpected turn, the latest release from the Hollywood legend is an adaptation of Jersey Boys, the jukebox musical that was a smash hit on Broadway in the mid-2000s. The film is written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the book for the original play. Given the success of 2012’s Les Misérables, it’ll be interesting to see if Clint Eastwood can also pull off the same feat with this.
Jersey Boys follows the rise, fall and everything in between of The Four Seasons, a 60’s pop-rock group consisting of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).
Going into the film aware of the mixed reception of the film, I was surprisingly dumbfounded by the critical response for the first half of the film. However, around the one-hour point of the film, it’s not so much that the film falls apart, so much that all the things in the first half that I initially considered to be some weird quirks or oddities suddenly unraveled and exposed themselves as serious problems. That’s really where all the problems are, the screenplay. Rick Elice has not written a produced screenplay before and Marshall Brickman, known mostly for co-writing several Woody Allen films including Sleeper, Annie Hall, Manhattan and Manhattan Murder Mystery, had his last produced script a decade ago (1994’s Intersection). So, it would be safe to assume that they are a bit rough around the edges in the screenwriting department, and it shows.
The only major and consistent problem with the script is the structure. It makes a use of a Scorsese style fourth-wall breaking from multiple characters in order to create the Rashomon effect. In case you don’t know, the Rashomon effect is named after the 1950 Akira Kurosawa film, Rashomon. The film centers on a rape and murder case, and the film switches between different characters’ perspectives, which are often contradictory, self-serving, etc. It’s become a recurring storytelling device used in all forms of media. The problem with its use in Jersey Boys is that it adds nothing. We start with Tommy talking to the audience every now and then. He is clearly cocky, arrogant and a bit full of himself and during this period, even though it’s from his perspective, the film doesn’t necessarily paint him in a positive light. After Tommy, who gets almost the entire first half devoted to his perspective, we move to Bob’s perspective. Bob’s fourth-wall moments basically add up to “Tommy is a problem and he isn’t healthy for the band.” After that, it’s Nick’s perspective that we go to and his moments basically add up to “Tommy is a problem and he isn’t healthy for the band….like for real yo.” You see the problem? The thing about storytelling is that it’s never what a story is about; it’s how it’s about it. And to say that the “how” of this film is sloppy would be a huge understatement. The point of having multiple perspectives is to give us (you guessed it) multiple perspectives, and the biggest problem with the film is that it never gives us a new look at the band or Tommy and Frankie’s increasingly antagonizing relationship. All these moments where the characters talk to the audience, instead of providing personal insight, deep thought or even hindsight, just serve as reassurance that what we are seeing is exactly how it is. And given that this storytelling device is really the only thing about the film that feels fresh and inventive is really not a good sign.
There’s also a rather bizarre issue that the film has in portraying the passage of time. It’s incoherent to say the least. Years pass and it’s next to impossible to tell. The only way to tell is to simply rely on your knowledge of the history of The Four Seasons to understand when the film is. There’s even a random flashback that really didn’t need to be there, and could have easily been placed somewhere earlier in the film, or explained with a few lines of dialogue. It doesn’t help that the film starts off expecting us to buy John Lloyd Young, a 38-year-old, as a 16-year-old (sorry Mr. Eastwood, but that ain’t happenin’). None of the actors are given much make-up work to show aging until the ending, and by then we get the ridiculous old-age make-up that reminded me of Eastwood’s previous film, J. Edgar. Another thing that the film falters on is the way it moves by plot points very quickly without properly developing them. At a point in the second half of the film, the story begins to deal with Frankie’s relationship with his daughter, and it’s done and dealt with just as fast as it began. Her character has not played much of a role beforehand, though she has been occasionally present, and suddenly she comes in and is used to get Frankie in a certain state of mind that he has to rise out of for the finale. The lack of development created a disconnect that prevented me from being emotionally affected by that moment.
If you’re a fan of the musical, which I haven’t seen, then I have a feeling that you’ll be very disappointed. It plays out less like a musical and more like a straightforward biopic, but with extended song sequences. There is a crime drama element that does add a lot of intrigue to the story, but in the end, it’s a generic musician biopic combined with a generic gangster film. While the execution was a mixed bag, it was odd to see the musical’s identity kept subdued for the film, and at times it did feel like Clint Eastwood couldn’t deliver some of the energy that the script was asking for. In fact, there is one scene that felt like a proper musical is during a number at the end credits, similar to how Slumdog Millionaire did it (and just like in Slumdog Millionaire the musical number is wildly out of place). So, if you were someone excited to see a new Hollywood musical, just be aware of the nature of the film going in, and those who didn’t want to see it simply because of the fact that it’s based on a musical, then reconsider it.
Despite these issues, there are many elements that I thought were well done. The acting is outstanding. Despite the initial suspension-of-disbelief regarding his age, John Lloyd Young’s performance as Frankie is top notch stuff, and his voice is near-perfect impression of Frankie Valli. Granted, he’s had enough practice playing Frankie in the original Broadway show, for which he won a Tony Award. Vincent Piazza (who I only recognized from Boardwalk Empire) is still proving himself as a great actor and he does a fantastic job in this film, even if it did feel like his eyebrows were permanently set with one higher than the other (seriously, once I saw it, I couldn’t unsee it). Michael Lomenda and Erich Bergen also do a fantastic job with their performances and they are each given several moments to shine. The whole group dynamic is perfectly executed as well. Christopher Walken is always a joy to watch and he actually delivers a great performance with his limited screen time as gangster, Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo. Also, kudos to Joseph Russo who plays Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci, I did not see that coming), seriously, great job. The period details are incredibly well realized, there are some genuinely funny moments throughout, Tom Stern’s cinematography is gorgeous (as his work tends to be with his work with Eastwood) and the muted colors give the film an interesting look, and…do I even need to say that the music is amazing?
I’m gonna be completely honest, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t enjoy the hell out of this film. Yes, despite these major problems, there was a nice nostalgia that the film provides, and there are enough great moments to make the film worth watching. Films about the creative process are my bread-and-butter, so there’s a natural open-armed welcome I have with these types of films. I can easily see this being my biggest guilty pleasure of the year, if not for the music, then for the old-fashioned sensibility and sincerity on Clint Eastwood’s part. In the end, it’s all up to personal preference. There are many issues in the script for sure, but the film is full of great performances, humor, technical prowess from Clint Eastwood and his crew and some damn good music. It may not have been the film everyone wanted, but what we got is still something worthwhile. If you’re a fan of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the film is definitely worth a watch, for everyone else, you might want to adjust your expectations and choose how you see fit. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a soundtrack I need to buy.
Side Note: In terms of films based on Broadway musicals, the only other picture this year is Annie, based on 1977 show of the same name (which itself is based on a comic strip by Harold Gray, who was inspired by an 1885 poem by James Whitcomb Riley called “Little Orphant Annie”). Annie has a Christmas Day release, most likely in an attempt to replicate Les Misérables’ box-office success. For Clint Eastwood, he is directing American Sniper, which is based on the autobiography of the same name by Chris Kyle, a U.S. Navy SEAL whose claim to fame is being the most lethal sniper in America’s military history. The role of Chris Kyle will be played by Bradley Cooper. It is currently being filmed and is slated for a 2015 release.