By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood June 25, 2014 at 5:05PM
It's easy to see how Warner Bros. turned to their A-list director-producer Clint Eastwood, known for his calm, economic, unpretentious, methodical filmmaking, for the 60s period musical "Jersey Boys." After directing 37 movies, he can do period in his sleep, from "Invictus" to "Changeling,"--on a budget. He's a composer and jazz pianist who knows music (Cannes prize-winner "Bird"). "It's just a lot of good songs," he told Vanity Fair. "You go home humming a different one every night." And he's great with actors. The Tony-winning musical also had a good chance of being Oscar bait--likely to play well to the seniors in the Academy who have voted Eastwood movies many Oscars over the years, from "Mystic River" to Best Picture-winners "Unforgiven" and "Million Dollar Baby."
But the movie looks bland and brown: while it may be accurate for the period, it's not visually compelling. And Eastwood made the disastrous decision, when casting this Broadway adaptation about the career of Frankie Valli (the Broadway hit's John Lloyd Young), to hang onto the original book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise, who did not change the structure of the musical, so that each of the Four Seasons tell their version of the story, sometimes directly to camera--which takes you out of the movie. He also cast many actors from the show. The one movie actor playing a Four Season, Vincent Piazza ("Boardwalk Empire"), pops every time he is on screen, which cannot be said of the others, who only come to life when they are singing their hits: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)." The music is sublime.
Clearly that's what Eastwood cared most about. One of the best moments in the film comes late when Valli first croons "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" and a huge brass band blasts onto the screen. "I wanted to give Frankie Valli the horn section he always wanted," Eastwood told me at the rooftop party after the Los Angeles Film Festival premiere (video of his LAFF intro to the movie is below). Significantly, all the Warners brass attended, from studio topper Kevin Tsujihara and distribution head Dan Fellman to studio co-president Sue Kroll.
As much as I value the old-fashioned strengths in Eastwood's storytelling over the years, in this case I'd have loved to see a director mix things up, try some new ways to make this story literally sing.
It was a sign that the studio knew the 60s musical wasn't an awards contender when it opted not to wait for Oscar perennial Eastwood's customary year-end slot, but instead opened the movie in June. They knew from their tracking that the film would pull only one audience quadrant--seniors. That's 83-year-old Eastwood's target demo, and the music was huge in the 60s. So boomers showed up in theaters. Would Warners have been better off opening later in the fall? No. This was their best shot at grabbing an opening weekend, because they got mixed reviews. (Indiewire's Eric Kohn and I dig into "Jersey Boys" in our latest podcast.)
Next up for Eastwood is the already wrapped "American Sniper," which should be more in his dramatic action wheelhouse. He inherited the project, as he did "Bridges of Madison County" and "Flags of Our Fathers," from Steven Spielberg. Warners production chief Greg SIlverman approached him about directing the bestselling autobiography of U.S. Navy SEAL Chris Kyle (Bradley Cooper), an expert marksman who survived multiple tours in Iraq only to be gunned down back home.