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David Poland

By David Poland

Review: Jersey Boys


The closing number says it all for me.

This is not a spoiler.

There is a curtain call… pretty much identical to the one on Broadway and on tour. All the performers come out… not to bow, but to get their moment of adulation. And Clint Eastwood stages it as one might expect from a movie adaptation of a Broadway musical. And for a moment, you get the energy, the sweat, and the exhilaration of live theater.

But after two hours of slogging through the theatrical gimmicks that have no viable place in a motion picture and the limited drama of the story as told on stage squeezed to within an inch of its mundane life, it feels more like a “fuck you” to the audience than a cause for celebration. Clint knew all along how a skilled director might make this movie… and he wasn’t willing to give you any of it. Not a thimble.

And even at the end, Eastwood becomes the first guy who ever hired Christopher Walken for a musical (and he is not in it nearly as much as his percentage of press opps suggest) and didn’t get him to dance… at all. He does a little arm movement in the end. He may be aging and he may be creaky, but the guy is as expressive with his body as he is with that voice and those eyes… and no, sorry, Clint ain’t indulging your pleasure, you mook. (The only moment of real life and energy I felt in this movie, aside from this closing – which, by the way, Papa Maudlin shows up to spoil in the very end – is a joke that Walken, in his mob boss character, does, responding to a list of bad behaviors by another character. It’s smart, funny, and you actually have to make a connection to get it… and the audience did.)

Vincent Piazza, the pro from out of town, was good as Tommy DeVito… but not great because no one was allowed any shot at being great in the way the film was made. John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli, is not a movie actor… not terrible, but not very interesting. I liked Michael Lomenda pretty well… but he is in a thankless role. Erich Bergen, as Bob Gaudio, reminded me of someone… or some different someones… or something… still not sure. The performance was solid, but we spent way too much time looking at his hair. And Mike Doyle, playing the producer Bob Crewe, seemed to be playing “theater gay,” not gay… and not a serious guy. The women were remarkably forgettable, except for Renée Marino, who seemed interesting as the woman in Valli’s life… until she was playing histrionics against a cold fish and felt like she was in the road company of the show. (She is probably great on stage.)

I only saw this show on stage once. So I can’t be sure that Mr. Eastwood took the show’s book and just filmed that. But it felt a lot like that. Aside from having exterior locations, there seemed to be almost no effort to turn this stage show into a movie.

I am not a fan of jukebox musicals, but I enjoyed my night of theater seeing Jersey Boys. It was unabashed. It moved like Bong Joon-Ho’s perpetual non-stop train in Snowpiercer. The sets moved. The lights moved. The actors moved. There wasn’t a minute to catch your breath. And the music was live, which is a very different experience than it is watching music sung on screen.

Even in the films that had performers singing live on set before Les Mis claimed to have been the first, the nature of watching a filmed performance is undeniably different. Also, when someone like Joaquin Phoenix or Reese Witherspoon or Jamie Foxx amazingly embodies the spirit of a performer on camera, there is a lot of room for forgiveness about how much the actor really sounds like the original legendary singer. But here, you have a cast of unknowns singing… so they better be amazing… and they were not that amazing. They are talented. But do I ever need to hear any of them sing again (see: Jennifer Hudson… or Beyonce’ for that matter)? Decidedly not.

It’s an ugly looking movie… but really, not my biggest issue.

I was lost by this film long before this moment, but this is a good example of what went so very wrong for me. The legendary Brill Building. Eastwood’s camera, via fx, scales the front of the building, looking into the windows, floor by floor. The people in the windows seem to want to represent some of the great hit songwriters of that era. But two things happen. 1. The camera moves so quickly, we have no idea what we’re seeing until we have already passed it, and 2. You can’t make out a single familiar tune coming out of any of the windows.

It was one of the few concessions to making this feel like a real movie… and it was thrown away like Eastwood wasn’t really so sure about this crazy idea. Deeply frustrating.

Oh, did I mention… the film is almost without a score, except for some hauntingly spare Eastwood-esque piano/guitar background music in the third act. This is a movie that went through one of the great eras of music in which there is a picture of a Sinatra album, but no Sinatra music. Etc. And on the big Valli hits… some of the arrangements seem slightly off, which has to be intentional… but drove me nuts.

Normally, I would be anxious to return to a movie I was this disconnected from when it was directed by a director I so dearly love (most of the time). But I don’t think I missed anything. This was not a mistake. I am not confused by the movie. Eastwood meant to do this. And it was painfully boring to sit through. It wasn’t the overwrought miss of Flags of Our Fathers. It wasn’t the complex emotional rollercoaster missing the station where it let the audience in of Changeling. It wasn’t the almost-there, but just not ballsy enough to make a great movie come to life of J Edgar. This was a badly conceived adaptation because it didn’t adapt… it didn’t get in the spirit of the material… it was inert in a way that no Frankie Valli hit ever was, not even after you heard it for the 200th time.

Jersey Boys is the kind of movie in which characters die in and the audience isn’t crying… they aren’t even considering shedding a tear… they’re just waiting for another song, hoping to alleviate the boredom.

I hated Mamma Mia! But I completely get why people loved Mamma Mia! to death. And I take Phyllida Lloyd at her word that the hacky direction of the film was intentional… that it was a hacky romp… a Greek vacation musical as shot by middle-aged tourists with Handy-cams. And you know what? I will stop when I see a number from that movie on the TV, whether it’s way over the top camp or the gloriously hideous singing of Pierce Brosnan. It’s like hearing an old disco song you hated back in the 70s and are now happily nostalgic about. There was such joy in putting up that show in that barn – Streep and all – that it’s ugly beautiful.

Jersey Boys desperately needed to enjoy itself a little… or a lot. With Scorsese off the table, Des McAnuff would have been a much better choice. A guy like Rian Johnson or Joss Whedon would have been an inspired choice. Sayles would have made a much better movie. Soderbergh would have killed it! Etc, etc, etc. But WB took the safe road, came in on time and budget (presumably, as Eastwood always does), and made a golem.

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17 Responses to “Review: Jersey Boys”

  1. chris says:

    Could not agree more except on this: Herbert Ross was the first person to hire Walken for a musical. A great one. (And I had the same thought about Bergen. Tate Donovan, maybe?)

  2. Jim says:

    A big problem for me was that he turned a musical into something that’s not really a musical. The songs rarely comment on or advance the storyline – it’s much more of just a band bio.

  3. movieman says:

    I still think David Chase might have done a swell job.

    Floyd Mutrux, too, if he ever wanted to make another film.
    Just compare the Brill Building stuff from “JB” w/ how Mutrux handled Laraine Newman’s Carole King character in “American hot Wax.”

  4. David Poland says:

    Jim – I think that is a problem inherent in the stage show as well. But the pace and energy made up for it. Here, with the energy level dramatically reduced, none of it works and that flaw becomes obvious.

  5. movieman says:

    Rian Johnson and Joss Whedon seem like nonsensical “JB” directorial choices to me.
    Hell, you might as well add J.J. Abrams and Chris Nolan to the mix if you’re going the fanboy route.
    While McAnuff did a great job w/ the stage version, his film work has been pretty unimpressive. (I don’t see anyone clamoring for follow-ups to “Cousin Bette” or “The Adventures of Rocky and Bullwinkle.)
    I love Soderbergh and Sayles, but don’t really see their bonafides for making a “JB” movie. (Sayles has a “Jersey Angle,” I suppose, but his movies are as far removed from musicals as you can get. He’s kind of an American Ken Loach. But “Magic Mike” was sort of a musical without the songs, so OK.)

  6. David Poland says:

    My point, movieman, was to look at unexpected directors who love movies and have shown skill at bringing a lot of energy to movies, as well as strong characters.

    Any one of them would have made a better movie than Eastwood did.

    You don’t need a magician to have made this film, however great Scorsese might have been. You just need someone good who would enjoy bringing it to life. Condon and Shankman would have been obvious choices and both would have made strong movies… but that wasn’t my point.

  7. Pete R. says:

    Wow, this is more than just a negative review, it’s just depressing. I’ll probably skip this one, but if I don’t, I’ll have a hard time forgetting this assessment.

    Regarding second-guessing Eastwood’s nixing of Walken dancing in the film, I’d venture say this wasn’t that kind of musical, and that Eastwood would probably utilize Walken’s song-and-dance chops were he directing “Hairspray” or “Pennies From Heaven.”

    All I can say responding to the whole “who could have done better” business is it seems like anyone could have done it better. That and that it’s snappy post fodder.

    I’m going to try and catch the stage show.

  8. Pete R. says:

    Wow, this is more than just a negative review, it’s just depressing. I’ll probably skip this one, but if I don’t, I’ll have a hard time forgetting this assessment.

    Regarding second-guessing Eastwood’s nixing of Walken dancing in the film, I’d venture say this wasn’t that kind of musical, and that Eastwood would probably utilize Walken’s song-and-dance chops were he directing “Hairspray” or “Pennies From Heaven.”

    All I can say responding to the whole “who could have done better” business is it seems like anyone could have done it better. That and that it’s snappy post fodder.

  9. movieman says:

    Some of those names still seem like pretty arbitrary choices to me, Dave.
    But I appreciate the point you’re trying to make.
    Thinking outside the box is where the magic usually happens in movieland.
    On paper, Eastwood directing “Jersey Boys” made about as much sense as John Ford helming “Bye Bye Birdie” in 1963.
    And as much as I love Clint, he simply wasn’t able to do the material justice.
    I guess I’ll have to add “Jersey Boys” to “Endless Love” and “The Lovely Bones” as films (plural in the sad, sad case of “EL”) desperately in need of makeovers in the hopes that somebody gets them right.
    (P.S.= I’m sticking by my “JB” director choices.)

  10. YancySkancy says:

    All due respect, movieman, but Floyd Mutrux, as you know, hasn’t directed a film in 20 years, only made five features total, and his best, AMERICAN HOT WAX, was over 35 years ago. I agree that the Mutrux of 1978 would be a great choice for JERSEY BOYS, but wouldn’t want to bet the farm on whether he’s still got it.

    I’m a big Eastwood fan and haven’t seen JERSEY BOYS yet, but I dig music bios of rock-n-roll era artists, even when they don’t hit it out of the park. My short list would probably include Darnell Martin, who I suppose is mostly back to TV after the underperformance of the great CADILLAC RECORDS. Would love to see what an outside-the-box guy like Spike Jonze would bring to a feature musical, after his great “Weapon of Choice” video with Walken.

  11. movieman says:

    True, Yancy.
    Who knows whether Mutrux even remembers how to make a film.
    20 years is a long, long time unless you’re Terrence Malick. (Remember the 20-year gap between “Days of Heaven” and “The Thin Red Line”?)
    But I legitimately love four of Mutrux’s five movies (“There Goes My Baby” was kind of weak).
    And “Hot Wax” has lingered with me as vividly, and fondly, as any film I’ve ever seen and loved.
    P.S.= I’m a big fan of rock-and-roll (hell, most any musical) biopics, too.
    Love me some “La Bamba,” and I’ve always felt that “Sweet Dreams” was an overlooked masterpiece.
    I like it better than “Coal Miner’s Daughter” which it was (mostly) unfavorably compared to.

  12. YancySkancy says:

    Would love to see SWEET DREAMS again. Reminds of a sick joke my sister used to make — she’d toss a paper airplane at something and, just before impact, shout “Charlie!” 🙂

    One of my faves is WHY DO FOOLS FALL IN LOVE, which combines a Frankie Lyman bio-pic with the story of the three women who claimed to be his legal wife at the time of his death. It’s like a pop CITIZEN KANE. Gregory Nava directed — maybe he should’ve done JERSEY BOYS, with its multiple viewpoints.

  13. movieman says:

    I liked “Fools,” too, Yancy. I honestly hadn’t thought of it in years.
    As I seem to recall, “Fools” barely made a dent in theatrical release.
    Whatever happened to Larenz Tate? He was awfully good in a number of ’90s pics (like the Hughes Bros. movies) before fading away.
    Speaking of fading away, Nava kind of vanished, too.
    Has he been working in television the past decade-plus?

    Gotta ask: Have you seen “Jersey Boys” on stage?
    In the informal polling I’ve done (very informal), people who haven’t seen the stage version are generally more positive about the movie than those (like me) who have.

  14. theschu says:

    No one’s mentioned Jon Favreau who worked on the project for years and was going to direct it. I haven’t been a fan of his last couple movies (IM2 and Cowboys and Aliens I mean) but I think he would have done a fantastic job with this movie.

  15. YancySkancy says:

    movieman: I remember seeing Tate in CRASH and RAY and an episode of JUSTIFIED. I know he put in a few years on Denis Leary’s RESCUE ME and recently did a few episodes of HOUSE OF LIES. Not sure why features dried up for him, unless it’s the obvious (FOOLS flopped).

    Gregory Nava has had no feature directing credits since BORDERTOWN in 2006 (that was the Jennifer Lopez murdered Mexican girls movie — I’m not even sure it got a domestic theatrical release). I assume the usual factors are in play for his apparent inactivity — lack of b.o. success, development hell, ageism, etc.).

    ETA: Oh, and no, I haven’t seen JERSEY BOYS on stage.

  16. movieman says:

    Yancy- I’d forgotten that Tate was in “Ray” and “Crash.”
    Probably because they were such smallish roles.
    Never watched “Rescue Me” or “House of Lies.”
    “Bordertown” was Nava?! Yikes. For some reason, I conveniently forgot that depressing factoid, lol.

    If you missed “JB” on stage, you’ll probably be more forgiving of the film.

  17. cadavra says:

    “people who haven’t seen the stage version are generally more positive about the movie”

    That’s very often the case, most recently with AUGUST: OSAGE COUNTY; the film felt like a Reader’s Digest version of the play.

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