Jersey Boys, the 2005 jukebox musical that tells the (more or less) true story of Frankie Valli, is one of the sturdiest and most enjoyable Broadway shows of its type. Focusing on the relationships among the Four Seasons—in particular between Valli and guitarist Tommy DeVito—gives writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice room to explore resonant themes of trust and betrayal that go beyond the daddy issues, drug abuse, and lost love that generally provide fodder for this sort of show. It also grounds the show in a specific place and time…or, really, in the timeless milieu of “Jersey.”
Clint Eastwood’s new film adaptation seems to be aimed at bridging the gap between Jersey Boys on Broadway and Goodfellas in the cinema, but that’s a long gap to bridge, and Eastwood falls short somewhere north of Newark. The swift pace and broad caricatures that help Jersey Boys play well on stage feel rushed and off-putting when translated to the screen. The film never comes near being convincing as a gritty slice of life, but Eastwood’s efforts in that direction weigh down the musical scenes and would-be lighter moments. Though the plot is more than sufficient to tie a string of songs together onstage, there’s not enough substance in this script to fuel the quiet close-ups Eastwood positions as emotional apotheoses.
Eastwood is indisputably a gifted director, with some fine films under his belt, but these days it’s hard to separate his filmmaking from his bizarro interview with Obama-as-chair at the 2012 Republican National Convention. Was Eastwood drawn to this material because it seems to valorize individual responsibility and hard work, the personal traits that Republicans think can do the work of a progressive tax code? Did Eastwood’s GOP friends guffaw at the flamboyantly gay Bob Crewe, as played by Mike Doyle?
Notwithstanding the fact that co-writer Elice is gay, I couldn’t help squirming at the laugh line when Crewe tells the Four Seasons they’re in trouble if they need to have him explaining the lyrics of a song about being wrapped around a girl’s finger; Crewe isn’t just a gay character, he’s the Gay Character. That’s in keeping, of course, with a film that also has the Alcoholic Mother, the Wayward Teen, the Awkward Virgin, and…well, I won’t give away the other stereotypes. You can see the film and enjoy them for yourself.
Will your parents and grandparents like Jersey Boys? Yeah, probably. The source material is too solid for Eastwood to entirely ruin it, and no movie co-starring Christopher Walken can be all bad. Even if the musical scenes don’t soar, the music itself is timeless, and anyone whose youth was soundtracked by the Four Seasons’ harmonies will still feel their power. The shame is that Jersey Boys isn’t anything more than an exercise in nostalgia. The songs, if not the boys, deserve better than this.