Let’s face it. There are two groups of fans who will go and see “Jersey Boys”, the new film based on the hit play. Clint Eastwood has a long and storied career as both a star and a director and has built a large, devoted fan-base. The other group are fans of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the subject of the extremely popular stage play upon which this movie is based. Neither group is the type known for running out to the theater on opening weekend (i.e. adults over 40) and snapping up a handful of tickets, leading to box office success. A teenage boy wouldn’t be caught anywhere near a theater showing this film. And teenaged boys, sadly, control the box office.
“Jersey Boys” isn’t one of Eastwood’s best. I have never seen the play, but I would guess this is a pretty faithful adaptation, down to the final dance number featuring the entire cast as the sort of final curtain call you would see on stage. It’s difficult to pin down, but I get the feeling Eastwood didn’t put his full energy into the project. Everything seems a little rote and routine, like he is following a well-read playbook and simply painting by numbers, following the source material too closely. I understand this is a very popular play and it is based on the real-life story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But there are certain things that work better in a play and shouldn’t be carried over to the big-screen adaptation.
One of the things that should have been changed? The characters each break the “Fourth Wall”, the wall between the stage, actors and scenery and the audience. This imaginary structure allows the audience to look in and observe the story. When a play or movie has done a good job, we feel as though we are eavesdropping and could reach out and touch Brad Pitt or Julia Roberts.
Breaking the wall happens more frequently in stage plays, when a character will turn to and directly address the audience, giving them a bit of narrative to act as punctuation or keep the story moving. This same technique is rarely used in film; the whole point of going to a movie is to become a part of the characters’ lives, to take a journey with them. When any character breaks the fourth wall, they are drawing us out of that cocoon, making us an observer of actors playing roles, rather than letting us become a part of the narrative. In “Jersey Boys”, each of the four main characters turns to the camera and addresses us, giving us little insights into their characters or their band mates. Ultimately, this almost becomes the same thing most people complain about musicals in the first place. Most people who don’t like musicals don’t like characters breaking into song and dance in the middle of a conversation or kiss or argument. It draws them out of the story. And this is exactly what the characters addressing us does. Breaking the Fourth Wall makes us aware that we are watching a film. Once that happens, it takes a while for viewers to lose themselves in the narrative again, if they are able to do that at all.
The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is told in an unremarkable linear fashion, giving us the highlights of the lives and careers of each of the musicians. What is missing are the details. And, frankly, if you have seen any other biopic about a musician, nothing in this story will seem particularly unique. The band members have financial problems, they have creative disagreements, they make deals with others, they have fights over the direction their band should take, they have problems with their wives, they have problems with their kids. Because everything is so familiar, you might hope that “Jersey Boys” would have a depth of detail that would help set it apart. At one point, just as they are about to become successful, Frankie eyes an older woman, Mary (Renee Marino) and decides to hit on her. She delivers the best line in the movie. “Call your mother, you’re going to be home late.” Next thing we know, they are married. Later, Frankie returns home and is fighting with Mary, apparently they have broken up. Their daughters sit on the stairwell, upset to hear their parents arguing. When did things go so wrong? When did they have kids? But we don’t get any of the details about why. This moment only serves as a plot point for a further development that is even more tenuous and doesn’t really get the attention it should.
Here I am arguing that we don’t have enough details about a story that we can already recite from memory. This reminds me of the line from “Annie Hall”. “There’s an old joke –um… two elderly women are at a Catskill resort, and one of ‘em says, “Boy, the food at this place is really terrible.” The other one says “Yeah, I know; and such small portions.”
Another reason I believe Eastwood didn’t have his heart in the film? Everything seems dull and poorly lit. This is clearly an artistic (or financial?) decision made by the filmmakers. I suspect it was a creative decision, to mimic the look of a musical from the 50s. But it doesn’t work. “An American in Paris”, “Singin’ In the Rain” and other iconic musicals of this era are known for their bright, vibrant colors, showing everything in vivid detail. In “Jersey Boys”, everything seems like it is shot through a black and white filter, darkening and dulling the images. There are many movie theaters that don’t change their projection bulbs enough, resulting in the same sort of feel for most films they show. I’ve never experienced this at this theater, so I suspect it was a creative decision. So it seems odd that there was a conscious choice to give this story this look. It simply ends up looking amateurish.
Eastwood is known as a director who knows what he wants and gets the job done, usually under budget. In fact, there was a story floating around the internet about how the four actors playing the leads in this film appreciated him for his economical filmmaking, i.e., fewer takes. I wonder if this desire to make the film quickly and under budget caused the dull, grainy look of the film. If so, it was bad decision because it just makes the film look cheap.
The actors aren’t served by the Cliff Notes-like nature of the screenplay. John Lloyd Young, a relative newcomer, plays Frankie Valli. Initially, he shows us the confusion and the wonder Valli experiences navigating the treacherous waters of the music industry. But later, all of a sudden, Frankie is a hardened businessman, ready and willing to make difficult decisions for the sake of the band and for his band members. Tommy DeVito, played by Vincent Piazza, is the man who initially shepherds Frankie through the music business, but as their popularity grows, it becomes clear that he doesn’t have the vision to take them to the next level. Being pushed to the side seems to accelerate other problems Tommy has, leading to a big confrontation down the line. Michael Lomenda, also a relative newcomer, plays Nick Massi, the other original member of the band also coaching Frankie through the beginning, formative years, steering him from a life of crime to a life of music. His character is given the least amount of screen time and seems to be the least interesting. The last member of the group, Bob Gaudio, played by Erich Bergen (a number of television credits), joins them when they try out one of his songs. He and a co-writer go on to write most of the hits the band is known for. Gaudio is also the most familiar with the inner workings of the music industry and Frankie recognizes this, prompting Valli and Gaudio to form a side partnership of their own.
After Valli experiences a traumatic event, the story suddenly shifts to the ‘90s, to the band’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, reuniting the aging members of the band for one last live performance. It is a nice moment, but you get the feeling that so much was cut out, to make the film an acceptable length.
The music? It’s great and fun to hear again. But only one of the songs is given any real context. Another, we see the moment of inspiration, but beyond that all of the great songs seem to simply materialize out of thin air. Maybe this was the case, but most art is inspired by something, so it seems unlikely.
“Jersey Boys” is okay, particularly when the music becomes a part of the narrative. But the ‘highlights-only’ nature of the narrative and the grainy, dark look of the film serve to make the film seem amateurish and underwhelming.