REVIEW: Jersey Boys

24 06 2014

Clint Eastwood ends his film adaptation of “Jersey Boys” with a Broadway-style curtain call so unabashedly corny and theatrical that it might make the creative team behind the “Mamma Mia!” movie blush.  It is, however, just about the only concession Eastwood makes to the stage.  (Unless you want to count casting mostly stage actors.)

Eastwood’s desaturated color palette and starkly observed realism always felt like a strange pairing with a crowd-pleasing hit from the Great White Way.  Although among those shows, “Jersey Boys” seems like it could mesh decently well with his style. It’s a jukebox musical, where characters break out in song not just as a form of heightened expression (as in “Les Misérables“) but simply to fulfill the act of singing.

Yet even with this natural method of presenting tunes, Eastwood’s film still opts to minimize the music.  It feels as if Eastwood ran out of quarters to feed the jukebox since we get nearly all the music from the prologue (8 minutes on the soundtrack dragged out to a 35 minute expository sequence) and then the first three show-stopping hits from Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man.”

What little we get to hear sounds good, a product of both Eastwood’s decision to sing live (thanks, Tom Hooper!) and picking voices that have the requisite pipes to do the numbers justice.  The joy of hearing a great, natural harmony recalls the authenticity of a pre-AutoTune era nicely and without drowning in nostalgia.

Jersey Boys

Yet once the quartet gets themselves firmly out of the old neighborhood, all the showstoppers from the stage show “Jersey Boys” are really just background music to the larger conflicts that Eastwood chooses to emphasize.  By that, I mean they are literally the underscore of the film; many hits are never performed, just heard in the background of montages.

At least Eastwood has something new to offer in his rendition of “Jersey Boys.”  He focuses his attention on the tensions that the social class and mafia-tinted backgrounds of three members – Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Valli himself – begin to place on the burgeoning success of the group.  Meanwhile, Bob Gaudio, the last addition to the group, is painted as a black sheep far more on screen than he was on stage.

The film, adapted by the same writers who wrote the original book (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), at least provides deeper insight into issues that are only sketched out on stage.  Yet in abandoning the effortless through-line of the Frankie Valli Greatest Hits album, it loses more than just effortless charm.  It robs meaning from many of the songs (at least those that make into the film), which were often times informed and enriched by what was happening in the lives of the characters.

And though the film is clearly about Frankie Valli, he gets overshadowed by the other members of the group, particularly the magnetically mischievous Vincent Piazza as DeVito.  John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony Award-winning role as Valli in “Jersey Boys,” a performance that I had the great blessing to witness in person.  It just doesn’t transfer neatly to the screen, where the feat of singing for over two hours in falsetto cannot be admired.  His acting is more suited for the broad strokes of Broadway, not for intimate close-ups which turn out quite comically.

New audiences will get to see “Jersey Boys” because of the film, and old audiences may find themselves at least somewhat intrigued by the new angle.  But more likely than not, they’ll just want to pop in the original Broadway cast recording and remember when the story made them smile and dance in the aisles.  B2halfstars



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