It’s hard to describe Clint Eastwood’s late-period directorial output without using the same words that apply to the hardboiled and callused gunslingers that made him famous. Stoic, steady, and assured are all useful qualities for someone looking to make staid historical dramas like J. Edgar, or a throwback like Gran Torino. But words like “spirited” and “energetic” are often strangers to Eastwood’s cinematic vocabulary, so asking him to make a musical was going to be a challenge from the start. When that musical happens to be Jersey Boys, a Broadway smash ill-suited for a film adaptation, both Eastwood’s and the source material’s limitations layer over one another like Frankie Valli’s voice on an 8-track, harmonizing into a 2-hour-plus slog through a dusty record collection.
The titular boys from Jersey take shifts narrating the rise and fall of The Four Seasons, the high-pitched crooners that came to Top 40 prominence in the shadow of Frank Sinatra, and just before the dawn of The Beatles. Loutish schemer Tommy (Vincent Piazza) sets the stage for the band’s struggle to escape ‘50s New Jersey, with he and the mellifluent, but naïve Frankie (John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway) working odd jobs for an amiable gangster, Gyp (Christopher Walken), as they wait on their big break. After a few spins through different lineups, different band names, and the same prison, the boys get their first hit in “Sherry,” which takes their sound out of the old neighbourhood, and into every household in America.
There are a few notable elements of the musical’s structure that lend themselves to a film adaptation, particularly the use of interchanging narrators, and the occasional jumps back and forth through time. But the albatross around the whole idea of a Jersey Boys film is that it’s a jukebox musical through and through: all the numbers are just hits by The Four Seasons, so there’s a sharp divide between the film’s narrative and its music. Making matters worse is that the numbers are all played straight as performances by the band, so when the group does bust out another song, it’s either going to be on a stage, or in a studio.
With the electricity that comes with live theatre, the glorified karaoke works just fine. On film though, the conceit is hamstringing, as Eastwood quickly runs out of ways to direct the musical numbers with any sort of a flourish. Using a long-angle lens to isolate Frankie from his band, and the gal he’s looking at from the audience, is a neat trick Eastwood gets to pull off early, but almost all the other performances are absent of any narrative information that needs to be conveyed visually. By the time the guys are doing American Bandstand in 1963, Eastwood is just as out of ideas as the TV camera operators recording the show, capturing the same angles they do, just with a few added cutaways to the audience.
It stifles the excitement of the performances that’s meant to carry you through the talky bits in-between, which are only further underserved by Eastwood’s preferred shooting style. “That colour looks good on you,” Frankie tells his eventual wife, Mary (Renée Marino), when they first meet, and we’ll have to take his word for it. Eastwood’s usual washed out filters sap the picture of any vibrancy and colour when the stage lights aren’t blaring, leaving the film as visually lifeless as it is narratively.
Jersey Boys, even as a musical, isn’t so much a celebration of The Four Seasons as it is a pandering nostalgia trip for the early baby boomers who probably stayed home during Woodstock. With so much effort put into packing scenes with as many Oldsmobiles and oversized fedoras as possible, the story is left to coast by on embarrassing bridge and tunnel caricatures of temperamental men and shrill harpy women. The outsiders to the Jersey bunch end up being the most tolerable, including Erich Bergen as band songwriter Bob Gaudio (“I don’t give a f*** about the old neighbourhood” he pointedly tells the camera at one point), and Mike Doyle as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe, a stereotype in his own right, but at least a likeable one.
The source material is further cursed by a loose grip on tone that Eastwood has no luck in reigning in. A setpiece scene in a stately mansion has Walken loveably strutting around in silk pyjamas, probably to distract you from how rapidly the scene whiplashes from bathos to pathos and back again. Though technically about each of the band’s members, the story does eventually settle on Fankie for its dramatic final push through the third act, but it’s a lost cause. It’s hard to tell if Young is talented enough in front of the camera to hold the scene on his own, as his big monologue requires investment in a relationship between Frankie and his daughter that the film has had zero success in setting up. While he’s doing his damnedest to up-sell you on weak material, the only thing that pops in the scene is the kid’s soda.
The great filmmakers of the time that the film covers, from Wilder (whose Ace in the Hole does get a pretty clever nod) to Hawks, had their dialogue fire off at 78rpms; Jersey Boys might as well be rolling out a red carpet in self-congratulation during the four or five beats that pass after every tired punchline. They do often involve a whole lot of cursing, so maybe that’s what you’re supposed to think is funny.
It ends up being borderline insulting how complacently Jersey Boys delivers nothing but era-aesthetics and catchy tunes, expecting that the audience will just lap it up. A credit-sequence dance number that’s more entertaining than anything the film does during its actual runtime gets spoiled by Eastwood thinking the actors have earned a theatre-style final roll call. They haven’t, and neither has he. For as exhausting as it might be, the songs in Jersey Boys are all very nice to listen to, and again, Christopher Walken in silk pyjamas. Any greater enjoyment, though, will be entirely dependent on your reverence for The Four Seasons themselves, and the era they’re meant to represent. Jersey Boys has nothing more to offer you than what three dollars worth of quarters in an actual jukebox could. It’s a cover act of not just a band, or a musical, but a movie.
Seeing as the musical was as ill-suited for film as Eastwood was for adapting it, it's no surprise that Jersey Boys settles for being a glorified nostalgia trip.