Saturday, July 5, 2014

Jersey Boys

Mel’s Cine-Files

By Melissa Agar

Jersey Boys (WB, 2014) Director: Clint Eastwood. Writers: Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (s/p, musical book). Cast: Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Steve Schirripa, Christopher Walken, Katherine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Mike Doyle, Johnny Cannizzaro, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, & Freya Tungley. Color, 134 minutes.

Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons have always had a special place in my heart. They were my mother’s absolute favorite group in the whole world, so all of my earliest memories have their music as the soundtrack. I have vivid memories of riding around in my mom’s old VW Beetle, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” blasting, and Mom singing along at full volume. My mom died in 2009, and one of my biggest regrets is that I never got the chance to take her to see Jersey Boys onstage. I know how much she would have loved it – she was also a big musical theatre fan, so combining two of her pop culture passions would have been pure heaven for Mom. I went in to see Eastwood’s film adaptation of the Tony-winning stage show, then, with a little emotional trepidation because I knew my mother would loom large over the proceedings. Indeed each song brought a lot of memories flooding over me, and most of the tears I shed were wrapped up in my mom and not in the actual events onscreen. While that is, in part, my own baggage, it also speaks to the fact that what Eastwood actually brought to the screen often wasn’t as emotionally engaging as it perhaps should have been.

Jersey Boys uses the music of the Four Seasons to tell the story of how four scrappy New Jersey kids went from singing in dives (and battling legal issues) to being one of the top music groups in American pop music. (They are the only American group that had number one singles before, during, and after Beatlemania. Not too shabby.) Initially led by wily con Tommy DeVito (Piazza), the group finally gels when they bring in songwriter Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who sees in singer Frankie Valli (Young, reprising his Tony-award-winning role) a voice he needs to write for. Soon the foursome, who also includes sweet bass voice Nick Massi (Lomenda), is able to get the attention of record producer Bob Crewe (Doyle) who agrees to record the first of their iconic hits – “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.” While the group is exploding on the charts, it is also imploding internally over DeVito’s spending habits (and debt to loan sharks), jealousy over the attention lavished on Valli, and secret deals struck between Valli and Gaudio. DeVito is shipped off to Las Vegas, Massi quits the group, and Valli is on the hook for the $1 million hole DeVito has dug for the group as well as dealing with his own issues with his troubled daughter Francine (Tingley).

I’ve not seen the stage show, so I have no basis of comparison as to how faithfully Eastwood has adapted his source material, but I know from reading some reviews of the stage show itself that Eastwood has largely been hit or miss in terms of successfully bringing the stage show to life. Like the stage show, Eastwood utilizes fourth-wall breaking narration from the four principles, narration, which works only some of the time. The narration comes and goes, and while the shift in narrator is designed to show a new perspective on a given point in the group’s history, that doesn’t feel as clearly defined here as I suspect it would onstage. On the other hand, the intimacy that is created, particularly during the segment narrated by DeVito, helps the audience feel a connection to the characters that would otherwise be lacking. Even when DeVito’s financial dealings threaten to destroy the group, there is a sympathy there that might not otherwise be because we “know” him and know his intentions aren’t as destructive as they would seem as filtered through other points of view.

Eastwood’s approach to the musical numbers is also a bit hit or miss. I did like that all of the musical numbers were largely organic – people didn’t just randomly burst into song as they usually do in musicals but rather were performing music in appropriate settings. He also effectively used music to score moments of importance in the story. The performances were often gorgeous and full of energy. A highlight for me was Valli’s “debut” of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You.” Because he takes this approach, though, it means that there are several lengthy segments with little to no music at all.

The first half hour or so in particular suffers hugely from the lack of any real musical number other than Frankie singing softly as he sweeps up hair (Valli worked as a barber’s assistant before becoming a star) or singing a couple bars of “Silhouette” to warn his pals that the police were coming while he is serving as lookout while his friends rob a jewelry store. The first half hour is mired in exposition that at times drags and gives an opening that lacks the kind of energy you would expect from a musical. (I doubt there’s a single musical in history that is so devoid of music in its opening scenes.) Once Gaudio arrives and the band begins recording and performing, the energy does pick up, but it is often in fits and spurts as there are stretches ahead that are largely lacking in music. 

Ultimately, Eastwood directs the film like any other Eastwood film – it’s dark and full of conflict. That works well for the typical Eastwood film, but a musical like Jersey Boys isn’t a typical Eastwood film. By focusing on the darker elements of the Four Seasons’ story, the joy of the music becomes lost. You can sense a lighter story lurking in the shadows of Jersey Boys, a lighter story I suspect was more obvious onstage, but Eastwood doesn’t work in light. He works in shadows and complexity and the darkness of the human soul – probably not the best fit for a musical. 

That doesn’t mean that Jersey Boys is a total catastrophe. The music alone is a reason to check the film out. Reconnecting with music that played such a large role in my childhood was pretty terrific; I had forgotten how incredible and prolific the Four Seasons were. (I went home and immediately downloaded their greatest hits.) The performances are also largely pretty solid. Eastwood went almost exclusively with relatively unfamiliar faces, most of whom come from the world of musical theatre. Hopefully, this film opens doors, particularly for Young, who is truly riveting as Valli even if film shows him to be a tad bit long in the tooth during scenes when Valli is supposed to be a teenager. (I seriously guffawed when a character said that Valli was 16. Young may be youthful looking and the distance of a stage performance would make 16 a little easier to swallow, but onscreen with the camera right in his face….nope.) Once you set aside the age issue, though, you are left with a great voice that captures much of the nuance and angst of Valli without being a total impersonation. It’s time for Young to put his Valli to bed and move onto other projects that allow his true skill to shine.

Jersey Boys is a mixed bag. While the music and performances are fantastic, the direction does the whole package a disservice by not allowing that very music and performances to shine through. I wish the film had been entrusted to a different director – a Rob Marshall, perhaps, or Adam Shankman – who “get” the pacing and rhythm of musicals much more than Eastwood seems to. It’s a great nostalgia trip (I was one of the youngest people in my Friday-evening showing) that deserved more.

Grade: B-

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