The adaptation relationship between Hollywood and Broadway is a slanted one. More times than not, Hollywood is fighting an uphill battle to successfully get a musical adapted to the screen, with anticipation and skepticism weighing in with equal measure. On the other hand, Broadway has managed to take a number of Hollywood’s properties and terrifically reimagine them as music-filled stage productions. For those less in touch with the Broadway successes, look no further than the endless runs of Hairspray and The Lion King, the hilarity of The Producers, the majesty of Beauty and the Beast, all the way up to more recent affairs like Newsies, Once, Aladdin, Bullets Over Broadway, and even this year’s Best Musical Tony winner, A Gentleman’s Guide to Love & Murder (based on Kind Hearts and Coronets which starred Alec Guinness as a whopping seven different characters). Broadway has transformed cinema into live magic several times over, with some of their most prized possessions (i.e. Wicked and Les Miserables) being inspired by much older gems of the Hollywood kingdom. Theater lovers unfortunately are not as forgiving when Hollywood comes calling, because we end up with things like Chris Colombus’ Rent, Rob Marshall’s Nine, Joel Schumacher’s Phantom of the Opera, Adam Shankman’s Rock of Ages, and Tom Hooper’s Les Miserables (though not without its merits, it’s still a terribly made film). With the Tony-winning Jersey Boys finding its way into theaters this weekend, director Clint Eastwood has done his best to solidify all that I’ve written above by delivering the anti-musical: a joyless, drab movie that takes itself too seriously as a biopic instead of making sure that we never take our eyes off the sparkling story of Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons.
Before we go any further, I should note I have never seen the stage production of Jersey Boys. It’s a damn shame; you don’t have to tell me. An opportunity arose years ago, but my family infamously passed on preview tickets unaware that it was going to become an absolute smash just weeks later. I’ve continued to kick myself since its debut just 8 years ago and now, instead of enjoying the spectacle through live performance, I’ve witnessed its surrogate cinematic experience, which made me wish more than ever that I had not pissed away my chance to see the show on Broadway back in 2006. At its core, it’s still the same story, adapted by music book writers Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, following the rise, then the fall, then the semi-rise and mini-depressionbut eventual reunion of Jersey-bred quartet, The Four Seasons. It doesn’t skip a biographical beat, checking off each notch on the genre formula that we’ve seen countless times over, but it does nothing to remind viewers of the strong Broadway roots that this particular story possesses. Eastwood envisions Jersey Boys like Ray, a biopic through and through, interspersed with some musical performances that radiate as much as a flickering light bulb. The film lacks any real flair and doesn’t deserve to be in contention with the sensation that directly inspired it. Absent of theatricality, charisma, star-power, any serious attempt at high-spirited entertainment, or real directorial creativity, Jersey Boys is the worst kind of adaptation…it isn’t one at all.
In truth, the Four Seasons aren’t unique enough to deserve a film chronicling their stardom and the friction that eventually tore them apart and sent lead singer, Frankie Valli, on a solo career. From what I could tell, based on the movie’s attempts to incorporate the show’s narrative gimmicks, the musical works because of its necessity to be on a stage. I can only imagine how the nightclub sequence, in which all four voices harmonize together for the first time, or the moment when “Sherry” is catapulted to the top of the charts, or even when Frankie croons “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” for the first time, enthralls a live audience. I can imagine the humor and inventive insight that comes from the four main characters breaking the fourth wall at various points, directly clueing the audience into brewing subtext or the fact that a young Joe Pesci was a close friend of Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi, and Tommy DeVito. I’m sure the show’s luminosity is pervasive, and in 2006, Tony winner John Lloyd Young (also playing Valli in the film) could arguably be called Frankie Valli reincarnate. I can see, from start to finish, why Jersey Boys was a hit on Broadway because it is anything but that on screen. Its music takes a back seat, the power of the voices is muted because we’re seeing mouths move and perfected audio mixing synced back up with the actors, and we get a storytelling structure that is strangely conceived, poorly paced, and a recycling of the Goodfellas novelty and a writing exercise that we can see in every single episode of Netflix’s House of Cards.
The saddest part about the entire production is how lazy and ineffectual it is throughout. The four leads include John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, and Michael Lomenda. As I said, Young was the breakout of the original Broadway run, while Bergen and Lomenda each tallied up some performances on the West Coast and in various national tours. Piazza, meanwhile, is the most accomplished screen actor with a recurring role as Lucky Luciano on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire. While the idea of using vets from the show over movie stars is an admirable choice, it’s a misfire when none of the leads can transfer their stage talents to the screen. Lomenda, as Nick Massi, is particularly terrible with flat line readings and a jittery attitude that is cringingly forced, while Bergen, as Bob Gaudio, isn’t nearly as bad but is still easily replaceable. Piazza, as Tommy DeVito, goes so overboard with the Jersey toughness that I can’t tell if he’s spent too much time playing the same character on a boring TV program or is trying to do his best James Gandolfini impression. As for Young, I’m terribly conflicted because I’m sure that’s actually his voice we hear on the soundtrack, but you would never know because we’re watching a movie as opposed to hearing his vocal work on a stage right in front of us. On the outskirts is Christopher Walken, who provides expectant charm at best, but knows to expect little in return. Actually, one could argue his presence here is wildly random, as a kind ‘gangster’ who has little narrative purpose, but we do get to see him dance at one point which is one of the film’s best unintended pleasures.
Eastwood, in the director’s chair, proves that he was not only an uninspired choice for this job, but also that his best days are behind him. At one time a legendary actor in the field and a director to be reckoned with, he revived himself in both regards as well as cemented his legacy with Unforgiven, still one of the finest Westerns to come out since John Ford was alive, and then delivered in spades with films like Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. Sadly, Jersey Boys isn’t directed by that same master of the medium but rather the journeyman who produced awards-grubbing crud like Invictus, Changeling, and J. Edgar. In fact, calling Jersey Boys an Eastwood biopic should conjure up connections to those films exactly, as each of them are workman-like biographical slugs. Most of Jersey Boys feels like it was crafted by a film school graduate hired off Craigslist; going through the motions from start to finish, moving the camera once or twice, placing it statically during the musical sequences as if they’re supposed to jump off the screen all on their own. Energy is something that Eastwood has been lacking in his elder years, and as seen by recent public appearances (namely his whole RNC ‘talking to a chair’ bit or his recent occupation as a Tony’s presenter where he vocally expressed his inability to read the teleprompter), Jersey Boys is a product of lulled filmmaking, right down to its monochrome and muted cinematography. It should come as no surprise that instead of yelling “Action!” Eastwood whispers, “Whenever you’re ready…” when on set. The man is in no rush to get things moving, and at 135 long and droning minutes, neither is Jersey Boys.
In the Golden Age of Hollywood, movie musicals were regular occurrences, bursting with colorful energy, theatricality, tons of dance numbers, and warm reception by the general public; the label ‘movie star’ was synonymous with ‘singer’ and ‘dancer.’ Gene Kelly and Frank Sinatra were as beloved as Burt Lancaster and Spencer Tracy, James Cagney could play a gangster in one film and revive George M. Cohan in the next (both of which he did), Bob Fosse of Cabaret beat Francis Ford Coppola for Best Director the year The Godfather was released, and choreographer Busby Berkeley was a three-time Oscar nominee in a category that has since been discarded by the Academy Awards (Best Dance Direction). There was a time when movie musicals were respected as serious prospects, much like their Broadway counterparts. This isn’t to say that some have been successful, like Chicago, which won Best Picture in 2002, or Dreamgirls, which remains my choice example for a film that balances its Broadway upbringing with a cinematic reimagining perfectly. Jersey Boys doesn’t strike that kind of balance whatsoever. It plays things so straight that one could forget that it was ever a Broadway show to begin with. It’s a show that belonged on the stage and now, for more reasons that ever, deserves to stay right there.
The film was originally slated as a passion project for Iron Man’s Jon Favreau, and who knows what that might have been like. But for those who cherish the show as it was on the stage, it’s a memory that is best left to thrive as the lucky viewer chooses to remember it.
Review by Mike Murphy