It’s possible that no movie about music has ever treated its songs with more indifference than Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys, which opens in theaters this Friday. It feels embarrassed of its own genre, which is doubly weird given that the film is an adaptation of the hit Broadway jukebox musical of the same name, a telling of the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons as constructed around the group’s biggest hits.
The songs should be the heart of the damn thing, but on screen, the signature tunes have been broken up or shrunken down to hurried performances that also often serve as montages to whisk the story along. And the numbers have all been folded into the action — they’re never anything but realistic, whether they’re part of a performance on The Ed Sullivan Show, a recording session, or a spur-of-the-moment audition. It’s the least joyous sort of musical imaginable — one that’s convinced that what you really want is to get back to the talking.
As one of cinema’s great growlers, Eastwood’s never been the most effusive guy, either behind or in front of the camera. So, he’s not an expected choice when it comes to helming a musical, but he’s no stranger to music, either. He directed himself as a western singer in 1982’s Honkytonk Man, and made the Charlie Parker biopic Bird a few years later. And in his side career as a musician, he and Merle Haggard even had a No. 1 country hit. But this version of Jersey Boys misses the point in such a fundamental way that it’s actually kind of fascinating.
Eastwood treats Jersey Boys like a straightforward, gritty biopic about four talented Italian American kids from a tough New Jersey neighborhood. But the screenplay, which is adapted by original writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, is still scripted like a musical, even if the end product tries to extinguish any glimmer of razzle-dazzle. Big events are skimmed over in cursory fashion (one character’s daughter is basically introduced in order to die), and characters talk to the camera and speak like they’re in a gaudy, exuberant stage production.
“Ya got a nickel? Call your mother. You’re gonna be home late,” says sultry Mary Delgado (Renée Marino) on her first date with young Frankie (John Lloyd Young). In the next scene, they’re getting married while Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza, the clear standout and the only one of four leads to not come from one of the stage productions) delivers his thoughts on matrimony from behind the wheel of a nearby car. After that, Mary only appears to drunkenly scream at Frankie about his failures as a father, a shrewish caricature.
Goodfellas it’s not, but that’s basically the treatment Eastwood tries to give Jersey Boys. It’s like taking Chicago and shooting it like Orange Is The New Black — the subdued approach only emphasizes how stylized the material is. And this approach leads to the regrettable downplaying of some musical moments that should have been sparkling, like “Walk Like A Man,” which ends up sandwiched between a stage performance of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and a Christmas party. Meanwhile, the intro to “Sherry” is sung into a phone.
If Eastwood really was more interested in the story of the Four Seasons than its musical retelling, he would have done better to work off a fresh screenplay written for the screen rather than the curiously structured result, which skips back and forth in time, lets everyone narrate but its protagonist, and trims certain plot threads down so much that they barely make sense. But the most frustrating part about the movie is that it closes with the very thing it’s been desperately short on the entire time.
After the ups, the downs, and the reconciliations, Jersey Boys ends with an honest to god song-and-dance number, in which all the characters come together to perform “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” on a stylized Jersey street corner. It’s gleeful, it’s fun, and it has more life to it than anything that’s come before. Its inclusion as the credits roll feels almost like a taunt — obviously, Eastwood knows how to do this, but he simply didn’t want to. Unfortunately, the movie he made instead doesn’t work as a musical or as a biopic. It’s, at best, a curiosity — the musical that doesn’t want to be one.