At one point in Clint Eastwood’s screen adaptation of the smash-hit Broadway jukebox musical Jersey Boys, real-life producer Bob Crewe (played by Law & Order: SVU’s Mike Doyle) complains about a backing harmony laid down by the men who are just a few hits away from becoming The Four Seasons. Still waiting for their big break, they’re stuck crooning behind other singers with better promotional deals, but Crewe doesn’t like what he’s hearing. “I’m hearing it in sky blue, you’re giving it to me in brown!” he yells. It’s meant as a laugh moment, to show how demanding yet flaky Crewe can be. But it sums up the movie around him surprisingly well. On Broadway, Jersey Boys played in sky blue, full of bright lights and big, defiant energy. In Eastwood’s conception, it’s all browns, both in the literal sense, with its desaturated, flat color palette, and in its desultory shooting, editing, and performances.
First-time screenwriter Rick Elice and partner Marshall Brickman (Woody Allen’s co-writer on Annie Hall, Sleeper, Manhattan, and Manhattan Murder Mystery) adapted their book for Jersey Boys for Eastwood’s version, which partially keeps the play’s structure, telling The Four Seasons’ origin story through the group’s songs and through narration, delivered by one band member at a time, talking conspiratorially to the camera. But where the play chains the dialogue together through the music, and creates a “four seasons” structure through the four narrators, the film muddles both structures, pulling out some of the songs, leaving long segments music-free, and minimizing the fourth-wall-breaking until it becomes an intermittent distraction rather than a spine.
John Lloyd Young plays Four Seasons lead singer Frankie Valli, the role he originated on Broadway. (His performance won the Tony for Best Leading Actor in a Musical for 2005.) As the story opens in 1951, Valli is 16-year-old Frankie Castelluccio, a small-town New Jersey boy widely recognized as a gifted singer whose talent may carry him to bigger and better things. Mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) respects and protects him, and Gyp’s little-loved protégé-on-sufferance Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) brings him in on a band that keeps changing names and sounds. Roughly the first quarter of Jersey Boys follows Frankie and Tommy’s close friendship, as Tommy and his other bandmates, including Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda, a later Jersey Boys stage vet) rotate in and out of jail, frequently dragging Frankie into their problems.
But the break comes when another neighborhood slob, Joe Pesci (yes, Tommy informs the camera, that Joe Pesci), introduces Frankie, Nick, and Tommy to singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen, another Jersey Boys tour vet), who starts to write songs around Frankie’s sweet falsetto and the band’s warm harmonies. Fame follows eventually, but tension follows immediately, with Tommy and Bob battling over Frankie’s loyalties, and Nick stuck in the middle.
There’s a lot of big, painful true-life drama in Jersey Boys’ story, as a coupla mooks from the hood make good and are torn apart by fame, divided loyalties, and their own vices. (Gambling in Tommy’s case, sex in Frankie’s, ambition in Bob’s.) But Eastwood has his actors play it all with grave, subdued import that barely budges the drama needle even when they’re yelling at each other. When the actors are singing, the film has some verve; when they’re talking, it’s sleepy and plodding, with all the self-importance of Eastwood’s Gran Turino or Million Dollar Baby. This is a zippy 45 rpm record, playing back at a dozy 33 1/3 speed. A handful of lively little touches fit in awkwardly, as if they’ve been borrowed from other movies: a fast pan up the Brill building, with different songs coming out of different floors, as if the audience is scanning across a radio dial, feels like a goofy moment from The Hudsucker Proxy. When the Four Seasons hit big with the trifecta of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man,” the action is compressed enough to resemble the “Meek Shall Inherit” success montage from 1986’s Little Shop Of Horrors, with the silliest inspiration-to-song transition since Reese Witherspoon moaned, “It burns, it burns, it burns” in Walk The Line.
And that compression becomes a major problem in the story, just as it was in the Broadway hit. Characters drop in and out without explanation. The timeline is rarely clear, as decades blur by, largely marked by wardrobe changes and Bob Gaudio growing an alternate-universe-evil-opposite goatee. (The actors’ ages don’t help; the film has a bit of a Rent problem, with performers who have aged out of their roles. The scene where Bob loses his virginity to great acclaim is odd enough—the actor is 28, the character is supposed to be 18, though the film doesn’t mention that detail—but it’s even odder when Frankie’s parents scold him about his 11 p.m. curfew. John Lloyd Young is 38.) The film has a habit of casually revealing surprising details—Oh, Bob Crewe is co-writing the Four Seasons’ songs? Oh, Frankie has three children? Oh, that girl he slept with in one scene who then disappeared for a quarter of the film is still a major part of his life, years later?—but it consistently fails to integrate important ideas that should have been part of the picture all along. Given how much time the film spends on setup and character development, it’s exasperating how completely it loses the characters and context along the way.
The one thread that remains strong throughout is the struggle for control between Tommy, Bob, and Frankie. Piazza plays Tommy as a two-bit thug who never outgrew his youthful mob-boss dreams, and thinks he can control his adult partners through the intimidation and machismo that worked for a teenager. Bergen’s Gaudio is an intellectual-property sophisticate at 18, and he carefully herds Frankie away from Tommy with side deals and success. Frankie is understandably conflicted, as the man who gave him his big break also threatens to destroy it. It’s a powerful setup, but too much of the conflict comes across as flat description, expressed directly to the camera or via thunking dialogue. And too much of it is crowded out by trivia and side plots. There’s no sense of flow or continuity from one era to the next, for the music, the characters, or their complicated history.
Between the high-gloss, desaturated prestige-picture look of the film and the visibly fakey soundstage sets of the Jersey boys’ hometown, Jersey Boys feels plastic and artificial throughout. There’s no sense of authentic urgency or intensity to any of it. The stage version feels like an evening with a jukebox, with narration thrown in; the film should be more intimate and personal, but it winds up feeling like a conventional drama, periodically interrupted for musical numbers. When it ends with a Four Seasons medley, delivered from that phony-looking Jersey soundstage, with the whole cast reprising their roles and taking their bows, Broadway style, it suggests that the staginess of the production was deliberate and conscious, an attempt to re-create theater’s presentational qualities. But it never entirely reaches the level of artful affect. Crewe’s “less brown, more blue” complaint is querulous and silly, but his character seems to have a better take on the material than Eastwood.