Thursday, July 17, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

On Broadway, it's called a "jukebox musical." In Hollywood, it's a "music biopic." But ultimately, these are the same things: sweeping stories about the careers of famous musicians as told through their hit songs. The latter is what draws you in, though, and, especially on Broadway, is almost entirely the point of the production's existence. For example, Jersey Boys on Broadway was destined to be a smash because of the universal appeal of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons' music; that audiences would get bits and pieces of the band's story between the songs is just an added bonus. As a result, jukebox musicals ultimately live or die by the appeal of the artists at the center. It's why, say, a musical featuring the songs of Carole King can be a Tony-winning hit, while a musical about Tupac Shakur closes after six weeks. Tupac's music doesn't naturally suit itself to the Broadway stage (at least, not in this version), while King's songs are popular among pretty much any audience segment.

The same is essentially true of music biopics. The songs are the raison d'être for the film, but because film is a storytelling medium, more emphasis has to be placed on the narrative between the songs. In this case, films live or die on the strength of the story and the performance at the center: Ray succeeds as much as it does because of Jamie Foxx's electric performance as Ray Charles. On the other side of that coin, Beyond the Sea fails because, despite being a terrific actor in his own right, Kevin Spacey was a poor fit for playing Bobby Darin, especially at the point he finally got the movie made. Whereas jukebox musicals can coast on the thrill of watching the songs performed live, music biopics need more meat around the songs to make the venture worthwhile.

All of this is to say that Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the Tony-winning hit musical, is a rare film that attempts to translate a jukebox musical into a music biopic. The results are shaky, but the film still has its charms.

More after the jump.

The story, of course, follows the rise and fall of the Four Seasons, the hugely popular rock and doo-wop group that reached prominence in the 1960s. The film opens with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a small-time crook in Newark, New Jersey who also plays guitar in a local band, alongside bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). Tommy recruits a young kid from a local barbershop, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for his performance in the role on Broadway), who is described as having "the voice of an angel." The final piece comes with the arrival of keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), and it's not long before the band breaks out of New Jersey and becomes a pop smash. However, Tommy's crippling debts and the band's ties to local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) put a strain on the group just as they're reaching the top.

Perhaps the most fascinating thing that the film has going for it, on paper, is Eastwood in the director's chair. Google "Clint Eastwood + musical," and the results aren't always pretty. And given Eastwood's recent filmography, filled with heavy-handed drama and a muted color palette, he certainly didn't seem like a top choice to direct a musical about a group whose music is known for its cheeriness. It's not surprising, then, that Eastwood really isn't a good fit for the film. The washed-out look of the film only makes it all the more noticeable that the film has no visual flair, even in the performance sequences. In fact, it's a roundly pedestrian effort, as if Eastwood doesn't really have any investment in what he's putting on film. (It should be noted that I personally think Eastwood is one of the most overrated directors working today).

Not all of this is Eastwood's fault, though. The script comes from Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who authored the book for the Broadway show as well. This is notable because one of the devices that the Broadway version utilized - actors breaking the fourth wall to directly address the audience - is kept intact, with Tommy, Nick, and Bob often turning to the camera to tell the audience what they're thinking or what's coming up. On film, it's distracting and unnecessary, taking away from the action occurring on screen by spelling out what the audience can (or, at least, should) be able to understand. Similarly, the narrative falls into the same trap that most biopics face: taking a "greatest hits" approach to storytelling, which speeds the audience through the story without letting the impact of anything sink in. The only element of the story that is really given room to breathe is the complicated relationship between Tommy and Frankie, and thankfully Piazza and Young play this with enough heart that it becomes the most interesting part of the film.

Yet, that being said, it's hard to say that the film really gives the audience a real idea of who these characters are. Young does a great job at playing Frankie's "innocence," though he's clearly way too old to still be playing the role (he originated the role nearly a decade ago). Piazza takes the collection of clichés that make up Tommy on paper and manages to make him feel like a real person, and he finds the subtle inner turmoil that governs Tommy's behavior. Lomenda and Bergen get some fine moments, but their characters never really come together in an interesting way. Walken, too, is especially wasted in a bit role that requires very little of him but a thrift-store Brando impression. Two minor characters make great impressions: Renée Marino gets a terrifically brassy first scene as Frankie's first wife, Mary, while Joseph Russo steals every one of his scenes as Tommy's two-bit associate Joey, aka Joe Pesci (Pesci really did know the real Tommy DeVito, and his character in Goodfellas was reportedly named as tribute to him). Yet even these are hardly "characters" so much as caricatures that pop in and out of the film.

For all of that, though, there's no denying the power of the music. Hearing "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You," and "Who Loves You" booming from the theater speakers reminds you of how incredible those songs are, pop smashes that hit the sweet spot between sentimentality and high-energy dancing. Young does a remarkable impression of Valli's distinctive vocals, so close you could swear you're hearing the genuine article. And even if Eastwood's direction of the musical sequences are workmanlike, he at least doesn't get in the way of the music, letting the songs speak for themselves.

It's not enough to save the film from its flaws, but it is enough to forgive a good bit of it. There's a much better film lurking within Jersey Boys. But if nothing else, it serves as a solid reminder of how great the Four Seasons were in their prime. C-

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