Jersey Boys movie review: it’s not only rock ’n’ roll…

Jersey Boys red light

Director Clint Eastwood’s discomfort with his own material is enormous and obvious. Does he just not get pop music, or is he actively disdainful and suspicious of it?
I’m “biast” (pro): nothing

I’m “biast” (con): nothing

I have not seen the source material

(what is this about? see my critic’s minifesto)

I’m hearing it in sky blue,” complains music producer Bob Crewe in the middle of recording a track with the group that will later be called The Four Seasons. “You’re giving me brown.”

Alas, the same could be said to director Clint Eastwood of his film adaptation of the Broadway and West End hitJersey Boys, about the rise and rise and rise — with only a little bit of stumbling — of the now legendary Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. This is a stodgy mess of a movie in which a mostly bland cast is shoved around like pawns on a narrative chessboard to tell a rags-to-riches story we’ve seen too many times before, and with far more emotional richness and cultural insight. There is no passion for music here, and no appreciation for what made Valli and The Four Seasons so popular. If you don’t already know that they are one of the biggest singing groups of all time, and on an international scale — they were the Beatles before the Beatles came along — you’ll find little hint of it here. A few allusions in a couple of lines of dialogue about grueling tours and money being thrown around with abandon cannot make up for everything that isn’t here: a palpable, visceral awareness of the sex appeal of rock ’n’ roll for the fans and of the life-altering tragicomedy of fame for the newly famous.

My initial reaction was that Eastwood (J. Edgar, Hereafter) simply does not get pop music, but the more I think on it, the more I wonder if he isn’t actively disdainful and suspicious of it. The Four Seasons’ music is undeniably fun, if a bit cheesy and dated today, but there’s nowhere near enough of it in a story that is supposed about that music… and when it does show up, it’s presented with an embarrassing stiffness, as if Eastwood doesn’t know what to make of it. One early performance by the guys on the TV show American Bandstand is directed in a static, on-the-nose way I’d expect from an amateur director. Eastwood’s discomfort with his own material is enormous and obvious. The few musical bits in Boys remind me of the images we saw out the Soviet Union in the 1980s, when glasnost allowed Western performers to put on rock concerts, but the shows were watched over by buzzkill military security, to ensure no one in the audience had too good a time.

There’s another scene, in which the guys attend a party hosted by Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle [Green Lantern, P.S. I Love You], one of the few bright spots among the cast), with whom they’ve just signed. Crewe is as flamboyantly gay as it was possible to be in the early 1960s, and his party is full of women who appreciate abstract art and men dressed with an eye for fashion, and the whole to-do is just generally fabulous. Eastwood cannot exit that party quickly enough. It’s impossible not to conclude that he finds this side of a creative industry downright icky.

And then there’s the problem that Eastwood doesn’t seem to know whether he’s making GoodFellas or, I dunno, Walk the Line. Eastwood has a lot of sympathy and a lot more time for Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and his early career in music and relatively petty crime — Tommy has a sideline in selling stuff that falls off trucks — which is punctuated by spells in prison that he accepts with aplomb as a part of the business. Tommy’s pal Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) — later Frankie Valli — has not dreamed of being a gangster, and he’s not very good at it, but he catches the ear, with his angelic singing voice, of Tommy’s mobster mentor, Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken: A Late Quartet, Seven Psychopaths), which will be helpful later when Tommy’s predilection for loansharks will come back to bite the whole group in the ass. Surely Eastwood will have been aware that whenever Walken is onscreen, the film springs to life, and that it deflates the moment the actor walks off, but that’s not a good reason to focus so much on the mafia angle at the expense of the music.

Fun fact: future GoodFellas actor Joe Pesci is a character here, portrayed by Joseph Russo; he’s the guy who introduces hugely talented songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to Tommy, which will cement the future fortunes of the band. The script, by Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall) and Rick Elice, will go on to all but ignore Bob’s talent, which could have potentially made him the most intriguing character here. This is an extra pity, because Bergen is another high point among the otherwise forgettable cast, which is rounded out by Michael Lomenda as the fourth Season, Nick Massi.

The impromptu song that Bob plays as his audition to join the band is one of the few moments when Jersey Boys sparks to life: the other guys join in and jam, and we get a genuine sense of them as actual creative musicians in their own moment, not as stiff robots regurgitating old (to our ears today) tunes that are more muzak than fresh and authentic. But that’s lost among weird scene transitions, jumps in time that are pointlessly confusing, a mangled subplot about Valli’s daughter, mumbled and unnecessary narrations into the camera by characters that often seem random, and other cinematic flubs.

Rock ’n’ roll should be messy, but not like this.

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