Published Nov 11, 2014On the "From Broadway to the Big Screen" featurette included with the Blu-ray release of Jersey Boys, there are some brief discussions about the origins of the show. Originally, when the rights to the Four Seasons' music was acquired, the idea was to make a Mamma Mia!-style musical, repurposing the original songs to create what would presumably be a similarly whimsical bit of escapist trash. Fortunately, Marshall Brickman, one of the book writers hired to create a show by original Four Seasons member Bob Gaudio, thought that telling the actual story of Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi and Gaudio — all ostensibly Jersey thugs of varying degrees — might be a tad more dignified and compelling.
On stage, their rags to riches story, one that reiterates a generalized cultural ethos of hard work and talent being more reliable than criminal activity, services the music quite well. The energized musical performances are nicely juxtaposed with the seasonal vignettes that shift perspectives between each group member. It also helps that theatre is an exaggerated reality, making the sweeping story, which spans several decades, a somewhat campy and externalized bit of sensationalized Americana to be experienced more than internalized. Unfortunately, on film, a medium that's far more intimate and personal, the story is actively perfunctory, dull and draining.
The biggest issue with translating Jersey Boys to film is one that plagues all musical translations: theatre is meant to be bigger than life, shouted out to audience members at the back of an auditorium that are very much conscious that they're watching people perform, while film is much smaller and quieter, constructing a reality that needs to be accepted by an audience that's amidst the action. Traditionally, directors that have been successful in constructing a musical reality on film tend to embrace the camp dynamic, playing with tone to sell the insanity of an adjacent reality. With Jersey Boys, Clint Eastwood uses his usual humdrum, traditionalist and conservative style to film the musical with virtually no tone or perspective, making one of the driest and most painfully literal musicals ever put on screen.
It also doesn't help that very little effort was made to translate the basic story to a different medium. The film is set up like a stage production, insomuch as actors jump into a very broad conflict, announcing their feelings and doling out flat exposition, before things jump years ahead with little effort to define characters or allow subtleties to humanize the events. Frankie (John Lloyd Young) is the talented singer with noble intentions and Tommy (Vincent Piazza) is the loudmouthed perpetual fuckup whose dalliances with the criminal lifestyle — and constant need for attention — ultimately screw the Four Seasons over once they start touring America with their popular songs. Their conflict is as familiar as it is uninteresting, especially when handled with little delicacy or human consideration. Exacerbating this is an overly distancing aesthetic sensibility that understands the era but doesn't consider making it feel at all lived in. Everything feels like it's happening on a set, leaving the constant shouting and overacting to seem particularly strained.
On the "Too Good to be True" supplement included with the Blu-ray, everyone animatedly discusses how authentic it was for Eastwood to cast some of the stage actors that originally performed Jersey Boys in the film. But whether or not this helped or hindered the film is a moot point, since the main problem here is that Eastwood is stepping into a ring he's not at all familiar with. The main point to glean from this marketing filler is that Eastwood tends to shoot things once, not really caring if the actors got it in the first few takes or not. Everyone suggests that his experience and natural aptitude for the craft is why he does this, which may very well be the case, but this lack of consideration for the demands of a musical is ultimately what makes Jersey Boys such a dreadful failure.
In the end, it's hard to believe that the same man that directed A Perfect World managed to create such a flimsy, diffident piece of crap. It's really a shame this project didn't go to a less conservative director, or at least someone that could film musical numbers in a less lethargic, indifferent manner.