Jersey Boys looks and feels pretty much exactly how you might expect a musical directed by Clint Eastwood to look and feel.
Adapted from the Tony-Award winning hit musical, it is awash with nostalgia. Jersey Boys provides an account of the career of Frankie Valli from his early days in the local neighbourhood through to induction in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the nineties. The film is shockingly traditional in terms of construction, adhering rigidly to the formula for a successful musical bio-pic, from the early grifting to the eventual discord to the heart-felt reunion epilogue, complete with questionable old-age make-up for the cast.
Jersey Boys hits all the expected notes, but never quite brings the house down.
Jersey Boys feels like a very “safe” adaptation, right down to the decision to retain Tony-Award winning actor John Lloyd Young in the lead role. Eastwood frames his film rather theatrically. While he does shift the focus away from the four seasons/four narrators structure of the stage play, the movie retains a theatrical air. Characters are acutely aware of the fourth wall, often shifting from conversations with other characters to narration directed at the audience.
Eastwood doesn’t ever get too cheeky or too adventurous, but there is a sense that Eastwood is very much filming an adaptation of the stage play rather than his own take on the central story. Even after the movie’s “where were they thirty years later?” epilogue, Eastwood gives the audience an elaborate Frankie Valli medley playing over the end credits as something of an encore. The medley pulls together the most iconic hits for one last go-round, allowing the cast to dance in the streets after a long show.
Jersey Boys follows the familiar template for these sorts of musical biographies. We get the early years of our protagonists, establishing a sense of time and place. Then we get the hard work towards fame, which inevitably involves conflict with management as our heroes try to carve out a niche for themselves. Then we get fame, as the bad soars high and implodes. Inevitably, we get the aftermath, exploring the consequences of that implosion.
The stage musical rather cleverly divvied these quarters up – allowing one member of the group to narrate each of the four stages in the life cycle of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. (Appropriately enough, one for each of the four seasons.) While it roughly breaks down into those quarters divided among the four stars, Eastwood’s film is a lot less rigid in its approach. The result is a film that feels a lot more generic, charting the career arc of these performers in a familiar fashion.
The plot beats all feel rather familiar, and the supporting characters can’t help but feel like they are being drawn in broad stokes. Valli’s homelife suffers the most, with his wife Mary Delgado. Renée Marino is cast in a thankless role that feels like little more than a stock stereotype. She is the ambitious neighbourhood girl who proves singularly unable to cope with her husband’s fame – trapping him in a tragic and loveless marriage.
The narrative is so familiar that Jersey Boys can almost gloss over it, offering the rhythm if not the tune. None of the characters feel real, they just seem like instruments that exist to complicate Frankie’s life. The movie never bothers to develop any of them, so the family drama feels underwhelming. The unhappy marriage and the family tragedy is so inevitable that it almost feels like a familiar dance routine, one that Jersey Boys does with technical proficiency, but no real vigour.
Oddly enough, it’s this family tragedy storyline that makes Jersey Boys feel so much like a Clint Eastwood film. Sure, the film may have seemed like a strange choice superficially – how many reviews will make playful jokes about Paint Your Wagon? However, Jersey Boys hits a lot of the familiar Clint Eastwood tropes. The nostalgia factor alone helps it fit comfortably in the director’s long and varied filmography, even if it is not the most substantial connection.
The difficult relationship between the generations is often pushed to the fore of Eastwood’s movies. Mystic River, Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Changeling are all tragedies about how adults fail to protect children. The idea of fatherhood recurs in films like A Perfect World or even Absolute Power or Invictus. Here, Frankie Valli finds himself cast in the role of a failed father, a man who is successful by almost every measure, and yet still unable to take care of his family.
However, the film never doesn’t focus enough on Valli’s family relationship to have that tragedy pay off as it should. It feels like a background element that is forced into focus too late in the movie, an element that could have worked at the centre of the film, but doesn’t work in the film as it was finished. The result is a movie that feels a little too light and a little bit too familiar – but also one that feels a little too long. It’s two-and-a-quarter hours of a film going through the motions.
Jersey Boys isn’t a bad film by any measure. It is well cast. Eastwood is comfortable enough to let his actors do their thing with a minimum amount of intrusion. There are effective moments of levity and wit sprinkled through the film. The soundtrack is pretty spectacular. Eastwood’s direction isn’t flashy, but it’s very functional. He knows how to put a film together, even if it never feels like he’s pushing Jersey Boys too hard. It feels like a Clint Eastwood film, even if it isn’t an exceptional Clint Eastwood film.
At the same time, it’s a story that everybody knows – even if they walked into the cinema with absolutely no knowledge of Frankie Valli. It’s the archetypal “rags-to-riches-to-sort-of-rags” story that never goes anywhere unexpected or particularly insightful. There’s a simplicity to the film, but no real energy or verve.