Jersey Boys, the stage musical, was a thrilling combination of electrifying musical numbers, clever staging and just enough dramatic narrative to steer the proceedings from one song to the next. It was all held together by the vocal pyrotechnics of the leads, a nightly high-wire act of four-part harmonies and perfect pitch. With a (mostly) pre-recorded soundtrack and no possibility of hitting a false note, the film Jersey Boys loses any sense of danger and excitement in its translation to the big screen. An unforgettable live event becomes an unremarkable biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
The opening forty-five minutes of the film is an interminably long backstory of Frankie’s days growing up on the streets of New Jersey. The young singer narrowly avoided being dragged into the Mafia life that so many of his male peers pursued. The members of his performing group who would ultimately form the Four Seasons were in and out of jail and prison as young men. In fact, Frankie’s biggest fan as an undiscovered singer was local mob boss, Gyp DeCarlo (played by Christopher Walken without any hammy affectations).
At face value, these events sound like interesting fodder for a motion picture. In practice, it plays like an Italian-American soap opera with every young male actor in the cast looking into the camera with his best Robert DeNiro squint. It’s an exercise in caricature, not character. Calling it Good Fellas Lite would be an insult to Martin Scorsese.
Even without the applause of a live audience, the musical numbers still jump off the screen. The scenes spent in the recording studio, playing clubs and finding their signature sound rehearsing in hotel rooms are when Jersey Boys takes flight. Unfortunately, uninspired conflict and melodrama always seems to bring the proceedings crashing back down to Earth. The combination makes Jersey Boys a film you want to love, but you actually may not even like. Of all Clint Eastwood’s directorial efforts, this is his film that I am least interested in ever rewatching.
So how do you cast a film like this? Do you use someone who is a professional actor and let him lip-synch the musical numbers? Or do you use someone who can nail the high falsetto notes in his sleep, but has no real big screen acting experience? Eastwood chooses the latter approach and uses John Lloyd Young who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway. His experience shows in the performance segments, and his acting inexperience shines through the rest of the time. It’s not that Young is a bad big screen actor. He’s more than just “competent”. He’s just not as compelling as he needs to be. And with Eastwood focusing the majority of the film on the television Movie-of-the-Week character drama, it makes for a bad combination of casting and script.
The best films about musicians explore their uncompromising drive to succeed, their obsessive love affair with their craft and their undying need to be on stage. This theme was mostly ignored in the original stage musical, but it’s a much more noticeable omission in the film adaptation. We get the obligatory scenes of Frankie’s family lashing out at him, complaining that his “work” is more important than his family, but we are never shown why music is his first true love.
The script is laced with platitudes about “being the best”, but Jersey Boys never fully captures the dream being pursued by these young musicians. Apparently Frankie sings for a living simply because he can. But the audience knows it’s far more complicated than that. The fire in the belly that makes aspiring musicians into legends is nowhere to be found. A film lacking that essential element is nothing more than a fabulous soundtrack set to a montage of visuals. A film that can truly capture that emotion, well, that would be a biopic worth watching.
The Movie Isle
Scott Phillips holds a degree in print journalism from the University of Georgia and is currently a member of the Georgia Film Critics Association (GAFCA). In addition to his role as a correspondent for Timed Edition, Scott serves as the Executive Editor and Senior Writer for themovieisle.com. From 2013 through 2017, he reviewed films for filmdispenser.com. Along with his duties as a critic, Scott serves as the Content Programmer for the Way Down Film Festival held in Columbus, Georgia every fall.