Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (November 3, 2014)
While Hollywood continues to make movie musicals, the format fails to thrive. Exceptions exist, with the primary example coming from the smash Mamma Mia! in 2008.
However, more musicals end up like disappointments such as 2012’s Rock of Ages - or 2014’s Jersey Boys. Directed by a legend and based on the hit Broadway show, Boys didn’t really tank, but its $46 million gross didn’t turn it into a hit, either.
Boys takes us to Belleville, New Jersey circa 1951. Local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) takes a shine to 16-year-old Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) and encourages him to develop his singing career. Between illegal shenanigans, Frankie’s pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) plays in a band – and he encourages Frankie to sing with them at one performance.
Despite Tommy’s legal complications, he eventually develops the band with Frankie as the lead vocalist. Now debubbed “Frankie Valli”, he slowly works on his career, though his attachment to the mean streets keeps him from much movement for a while.
Eventually Tommy hooks up the band with local songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) as a new member of the band and their musical career starts to percolate. However, as this occurs, Tommy feels his leadership undercut when Frankie and Bob start to take the band in different directions. We follow their path as they eventually become the Four Seasons and turn into chart-toppers.
When I first saw the trailer for Jersey Boys and the term “Directed by Clint Eastwood” appeared on-screen, my exact reaction was “wha-huh???” “Clint Eastwood” and “big-screen pop musical” don’t go together in my mind, and the notion that Eastwood would take the reins of this film perplexed me. I know Eastwood loves jazz, so when he directed 1988’s Bird, it made sense, but on the surface, Eastwood seemed like a bad fit for this project.
Now that I’ve seen Jersey Boys, I can find nothing to contradict my original belief that the producers should’ve found someone other than Eastwood to direct the film. Note that this doesn’t mean I find Boys to be a bad movie, as even at its worst, it remains watchable. The inherent intrigue created by the basic narrative and the peppiness of the music ensures that the flick stays at least moderately involving from start to finish.
That said, Eastwood’s take on the material robs it of virtually all of its energy. Eastwood demonstrates no feel for the music; indeed, he seems befuddled by the ways of the short pop tune, and he appears to have no idea how to present this material in a compelling manner.
This means that when the movie should pop and dazzle, it simply sits there. Boys needed the kind of approach Tom Hanks brought to 1996’s delightful That Thing You Do!, as he infused the movie with precisely the right vigor and pep that the project needed – and clearly understood the feel for that period in time.
I don’t think Boys should’ve been quite as light and “fable-like” as Thing, as its story gets into some darker places. Nonetheless, Boys could really use an antidote to its persistently glum feel. Sure, that’s fine when Eastwood confronts those more dramatic moments, but he treats the entire project like it’s a death row downer. Even when we should experience the joy of musical creation, the film stays sober and mopey – there’s just no sense of life anywhere on display.
The casting becomes an issue as well, though not due to the actual performances. Much of the cast also played their roles on stage, and they carry over their characters to the movie screen in a satisfying manner. The performers adapt their work for the different needs of the film process and do just fine.
Except damn, are they old! Much of the movie takes place when the characters are supposed to be in their teens or twenties, and it becomes virtually impossible to make that leap of faith. In the less literal world of the Broadway stage, the use of “wrong age” actors seems like less of an issue, but in a movie, it turns into a real problem.
Well, it does for me, at least, as the disconnect between the actors’ appearance and their stated ages creates a true distraction. This seems especially true when Gaudio enters the tale, as the movie doesn’t set up his age especially well. At least when we see 38-year-old John Lloyd Young as 16-year-old Frankie, the movie reminds us of his age repeatedly; we don’t buy Young as a kid less than half his age, but the warning makes it a little more “believable”. However, unless I missed it, we get no such alert that the 28-year-old Erich Bergen is supposed to be viewed as 17.
This means some parts of the movie just seem confusing, especially when the other characters treat Gaudio like a young kid. The contradiction of the grown man we see with the teen we’re intended to view creates serious head-scratching.
Even with a more age-appropriate cast, though, Jersey Boys would falter due to its odd direction. With a greater sense of life and energy behind it, the musical could’ve become a winner, but as it stands, the end result seems too moody and dark to fit the narrative well.