Clint Eastwood is only making movies for himself at this point in his career. Every artist should try to please him or herself first; pandering to the lowest common denominator may bring success, but rarely artistic satisfaction. However, Eastwood doesn’t seem to be chasing some artistic muse. For well over a decade now, he seems to make movies because it keeps him busy. It’s a hobby, and studios pay for him to keep doing it regardless of diminishing returns or that it stops more invested filmmakers from tackling worthwhile stories. Eastwood’s latest directorial shrug is his adaptation of the hit Broadway musical Jersey Boys. For a director who barely seems interested in his own movies beyond giving them over to his actors and hoping for the best, he’s clearly unsuited to the vibrancy and effervescence a musical demands. Instead, we’re left with a choppy, haphazard story that barely gives the relationships a chance to breathe and the acknowledgement that, yes, we too enjoy the music of The Four Seasons.
The film begins in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951 where see the macho Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) hustle around his young friend and band mate Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) as they spend their nights engaging in criminal acts or playing smalltime music gigs. DeVito plays the role of both protector and facilitator as he tries to keep Valli, who has a remarkable singing voice, out of the revolving door of prison. Eventually, Valli, DeVito, their bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) discover that they make for a powerful quartet, and go on to become the legendary musical group The Four Seasons. But behind the scenes, their conflicting personalities unravel the band and their personal ties.
Eastwood has to capture both the power of the music and the intimacy of the personal conflicts, and fails to do either. The director always manages to attract strong acting talent, and continues to do so here. All four lead actors provide an intensity and chemistry to a picture that sorely needs it since the director certainly doesn’t bring those qualities. Young and Piazza in particular give as much heart as the script will allow, but their performances are no match for a movie that’s all over the map when it comes to telling the story. Jersey Boys constantly goes broad in its relationships so we’re left with Valli as the saint, DeVito as the stubborn screw-up, Gaudio as the brains, and Massi as a hybrid between an unbiased observer and a weirdo.
The whole point of even telling this story is to go behind the music and show us the complex loyalties where the brotherhood of the “old neighborhood” clashes against the typical selfishness of stardom. DeVito tries to carve out his niche as a financial leader since he knows he’ll never have Valli’s musical talent (in case you didn’t know Valli’s a good singer, the movie feels the need to have characters constantly look at him in awe every time he starts to croon). Valli feels indebted to DeVito for being the hard-charging leader at the beginning of their careers, but has to accept that DeVito’s negative qualities will rip the band apart. This is a central conflict but it’s constantly being chipped away by supporting plotlines that are laughably executed.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice‘s script stumbles its way through the most tired of musician biopic tropes. For example, there’s the shrew wife who is all for her husband’s dreams until his hard work on the road is too much for her to handle. But by the time this resentment explodes in Jersey Boys, there’s been no build-up, so the scene is comically random. It’s also the same chastisement we’ve seen time and time again of the starter wife who wasn’t supportive enough. At least some movies have the courtesy of showing that the husband isn’t 100% faithful or gets consumed in other ways by the rock-and-roll lifestyle. Here, Valli just works too damn hard because he loves his family so damn much. In Jersey Boys, he and Guadio are the truly responsible members of the Four Seasons. Coincidentally, Valli and Guadio also served as executive producers.
Left with shoddy storytelling, the film at least has its classic tunes, but Eastwood has no idea what to do with them. Eastwood presumably knows music (he’s served as composer on seven on his movies), but he’s at a loss when it comes to some of the best rock-pop songs of the 20th century. His approach extends no further than differentiating the stage play from the movie by using of close-ups. Beyond that, he sways the camera a little bit and cuts between shots seemingly at random. It’s hard to think of a musical as flat and lackadaisical with its music as Eastwood’s Jersey Boys. You’d get more staying at home and listening to the soundtrack.
I haven’t seen the Broadway musical, but it has to be better than the movie. I understand a film has to make nips and tucks to accommodate its form and runtime, and I’m willing to accept that the group’s less famous songs were trimmed for brevity. But it’s unacceptable to deliver a story this rushed and sloppy and presume it does justice to The Four Seasons. It’s even more damning to do as little as possible with the songs, which is the entire hook. We love the music, and it’s only during the end credits where Eastwood shows he has the slightest concept of how to make them come to life on screen. By then it’s too late and we’re wondering why he didn’t take this approach towards the rest of the movie. I assume it’s because he doesn’t care, and it won’t impact his legacy. Clint Eastwood’s legend is fixed, so he’s free to churn out as many forgettable films as he wants. Jersey Boys is nothing more than the latest casualty.