The phenomenon of the juke-box musical on stage has been a boon to theatres for the last couple of decades; cinema has been slow to catch up, but like them or not, projects like Mamma Mia! demonstrated that repackaging old hits with a gossamer narrative can pack them in. Like a movie franchise, paying customers spend big because they know exactly what they’re getting her; in this case, the many hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The Jersey Boys stage show has raked it in across the globe, yet somehow this film version fizzled and caught few imaginations.
Why? Even Valli, who executive produced the story of his own band here, was disappointed by the result, and yet that somehow came from hiring one of the safest pairs of hands in the business, Clint Eastwood as director. Eastwood’s love of music extends far beyond his speak-singing in Paint Your Wagon; he directed a biopic of Charlie Parker, and is a pianist and composer. But his work on the Jersey Boys project is a mis-fit; a stage-show is a concert with a few dramatic scenes lightly woven in. As a film, Jersey Boys is a straight bio-pic, with diegetic music only either as the soundtrack to montages or when the band perform. So there’s no unexpected bursting into song scenes, somehow the additional weight that Eastwood gives the actors backfires and the switches between performance and melodrama derails the whole mood of the film.
Eastwood has also over-reached several times by casting young, unknown performers; as with The 15.17 to Paris, this actor’s director gets good performances, but creates a marketing nightmare and a tonally wayward story. John Lloyd Young plays the falsetto-voiced Frankie Valli, and Eric Bergen plays Bob Gaudio, who wrote many of the songs featured here. They meet in a rough and tumble Noo Jersey circa 1951, grow up together, and taste fame and fortune, but at some personal cost as the years go by. Additional items in the bagging area include Chris Walken as a mob boss who dances in the final scene, and Joey Russo as Joe Pesci; the actor plays a role in getting the Four Seasons to the big time.
Jersey Boys may have failed to translate a stage hit to the big screen, but it’s a way better film that its reputation might suggest. Eastwood has a patience with the time and place of the story, and takes risks; this film has three fourth-wall breaking narrators, and there’s moments of genuine dynamism in the musical scenes, although the conclusion is rather muted compared to what would happen on stage. They also missed a trick in not including Valli’s classic song The Night, although there’s plenty of great tunes to enjoy; Oh What a Night, Working My Way Back to You and many, many more. Eastwood’s serious approach fails him in scenes in which Valli’s songs provide a counterpoint to Valli’s daughter’s funeral; it’s too much for a light confection like this to bear. But as failures go, Jersey Boys is a proverbial curate’s egg; parts of it really are pretty good.