An odd thing happens when Clint Eastwood approaches music. As if befitting the practical authority that the actor/director himself holds, each use of it somehow simply simmers rather than sparks. His 1988 biopic “Bird”—while an ambitious change of pace—sapped Charlie Parker’s tunes of energy or space, and left Forest Whitaker to a rather muted portrayal of the man. Twenty-six years later, Broadway has already done the work for Eastwood: “Jersey Boys” is wall-to-wall fantasyland showbiz, expertly shot and boasting fine performances, but it is in the spirit world between stage and screen where it loses its footing.
The 2005 musical is one of the prime examples of “match-made-in-heaven” storytelling: moments where an off-hand image or line of dialogue results in a character epiphany, quickly cutting then to that epiphany brought to life as a fan-favorite song. Charting the numerous no. 1 hits that befell The Four Seasons with Frankie Valli throughout the 1960s, this occurs like clockwork in Eastwood’s adaptation—even down to a Four Seasons hotel sign buzzing to life as the four-piece discuss a name change. Serendipity is everything here; in fact, scene transitions rarely occur without it.
Eastwood has secured a largely unknown cast for his New Jersey quartet, who rocketed to fame in the '60s and burned bright for a decade, and he retains the original musical’s expert eye (but still struggles with old age makeup, which shows improvement from “J. Edgar” but only barely). John Lloyd Young, Michael Lomenda, and Erich Bergen reprise their roles from various iterations of the play, while new addition Vincent Piazza (“Boardwalk Empire”) steps into the role of Tommy DeVito, the band’s founder and guitarist. The comfort with the material shows: the young actors share a rough-and-tumble camaraderie that holds our gaze, and Young (as Frankie Valli) captures a naïve ambition quite effectively.
However, early on Piazza’s angling shyster Tommy divides women into two types for Frankie, and we’re surprised the film lets them have two options. Each supporting female part, from Renee Marino, Katharine Narducci, and Erica Piccininni, is either an alcoholic manipulator or airheaded groupie, and it grows tiresome to see Eastwood return to those shorthand roles nearly every scene. The sole exception is Frankie’s daughter Francine (Freya Tingley), who wanders after her father while he’s on tour, but even she is made more out of narrative convenience than emotional heft or insight.
Due to the play, the four leads are also adept in the nonstop narration that blankets half the film. They trade off turns to camera, showing us their upbringing on the streets of ‘50s Belleville, NJ: the run-ins with honor-bound mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, who simply dominates this film); the numerous dive bars, bowling alleys, and recording studios holding a potential big break; the disappointment afterwards when none of it happens.
Screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice also wrote the stage version, and it is a case of underestimating the result when the nosebleed seats are allowed an up-close view: as Valli and his bandmates perform onstage, we can see the glee, exhaustion, and anger between them just fine. But Eastwood, perhaps overeager to stay true to the rhythms of the play, lets each actor roll out their emotions in mid-performance monologues that keep us at a constant remove. Not a moment can breath without a glib comment on what we’re seeing, something film easily has the ability to display.
Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern nail that display though. Shooting through a desaturated glow and on broad strokes of period production design, they capture an R-rated Disney ride of stolen goods, Jersey pizza joints, and penitentiaries where everyone is cordial and even buddy-buddy (one of the best gags in the film). Peculiarly enough, it is momentum and music that cripples the drama: Eastwood’s camera feels a bit creaky, two steps behind the beat, covering performances of “Sherry” and “Walk Like A Man” from multiple angles and piecing them together like a live event. You can almost hear the show director yelling, “Standby for Valli, cue Valli” from a booth, so obvious are the cuts in each sequence.
The performances also present that dilemma with screen musicals: whether or not to sing on-set or mime to studio recordings. Combined with Eastwood’s steady, unflashy approach, most of the numbers just roll along without incident. Don’t expect much of a sing-along, either: aside from the end credits—a “Grease”-style show number that brings the entire cast out onto a studio backlot—the songs are snippets, choruses that clip off before they even sink in.
Those end credits are worth it though, if only to see Walken nearing the closest to a “Weapon of Choice” sequel we’re likely to get. The actor is undoubtedly the highlight of “Jersey Boys,” tweaking every other line to his signature lilt and gently mocking every character around him. His every scene is gold, and thankfully Eastwood lets him play–it is when the film is a film and not just an uneven depiction of what once occurred onstage. [C]