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Overall Rating

Awesome: 11.76%
Worth A Look: 5.88%
Average: 11.76%
Pretty Bad70.59%
Total Crap: 0%

2 reviews, 5 user ratings

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Jersey Boys
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Get Off My Streetcorner!"
2 stars

Although his output in recent years has been admittedly uneven, Clint Eastwood has directed enough great movies over the years to ensure his place in the pantheon of filmmaking greats. (Yes, that noise you just heard was the sound of Pauline Kael rolling over in her grave.) I also admire the fact that even though he is at an age where most people in his shoes have either retired or have chosen to stick to minor variations on a standard theme, he has continued to challenge himself by tackling such unexpected subjects as a look at the Battle of Iwo Jima told from the American and Japanese perspectives ("Flags of our Fathers"/"Letters from Iwo Jima"), a somber meditation on the concept of life after death ("Hereafter") and a critical look at America's most notorious law enforcer ("J. Edgar"). However, if I was pressed to name a major filmmaker working today who least possessed a true rock and roll heart, Eastwood would either top that list or come in a close second to Woody Allen. This isn't to say that he is at sea when it comes to music. Jazz--he is your guy. Country music--not a single peep of complaint. However, when it comes to the dominant musical form from the 1950's on, he has consistently demonstrated what could charitably be considered a lack of interest. Hell, with the exception of the brief snippet of the then-unknown Guns & Roses in the Dirty Harry swan song "The Dead Pool," can you even recall a significant deployment of a rock song? Helpful hint--do not answer with "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."

Therefore, the notion of Eastwood directing the big-screen version of "Jersey Boys," the hugely popular Broadway musical chronicling the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, was always a bit questionable and not just because the last time that the words "Eastwood" and "hugely popular Broadway musical" appeared together in the same sentence, the result was the infamous "Paint Your Wagon," perhaps the only movie whose spoof on "The Simpsons" couldn't begin to compete with the actual thing in terms of sheer lunacy. Even when you consider the fact that the Four Seasons--who had a few hit singles during the period between Elvis Presley's induction into the Army and the arrival of the Beatles--were never considered to be particularly edgy or daring, even in their day, and that the jukebox musical chronicle of their history was likewise not particularly rebellious in tone, it still seems like an odder-than-usual project for Eastwood to take on because of the lack of any evident affinity for the topic and that is fully and fatally borne out by his dour and clunky take on the material. This is nostalgia piece by someone with no particular nostalgia for the subject at hand and the result is an indifferent slog through familiar material that somehow manages to come across as even squarer than the music that it is centered around.

Before getting to that music, though, we are subjected to an endless first act chronicling the early days of the group that plays more like "Bugsy Malone" with slightly more violence and much saltier language. Beginning in Belleville, New Jersey circa 1951, we are first introduced to Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a low-level aide to gentleman gangster Gyp DeCarlo (the always invaluable Christopher Walken) who, between the occasional prison stretch, fronts a lackluster rock band that is little more than an excuse to meet girls. Also in the neighborhood is Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), an uber-nice boy with an astounding multi-octave range who is nevertheless marking time working in a barber shop and making a valuable friendship of his own with DeCarlo. Tommy invites Frankie to sing with his group one night and it goes so well that he invites him to join up with him and bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) full time. However, there is something still missing and that is where a local pinsetter and would-be talent manager by the name of Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo)--yes, that Joey Pesci--steps in to introduce them to Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), another local guy who can not only play and sing but who has already written a hit song with the immortal "Short Shorts." Tommy is against bringing in Bob at first--if only because he seems to know far more about the music business than he does--but eventually goes along with the move.

Now calling themselves The Four Seasons, the guys are stuck doing session work until Tommy acquires the money for them to cut a few songs and Bob comes up with a ditty to take advantage of Frankie's amazing pipes, a little thing called "Sherry." The song is a smash and the guys are up and running with a series of hits, legions of fans, tours and appearances that elevate them to among the biggest stars in the country. It sounds like that all of their dreams have come true but if you have ever seen a musical biopic--hell, if you have only seen the trailer to a musical biopic--then you know that fame is a hideous bitch goddess and that the Billboard Top 100 is frequently sodden with the tears of the broken-hearted. Frankie has a troubled home life in which his wife, Mary (Renee Marino), a former firecracker who married him before the success, drunkenly complains that he is never there for their three daughters--of course, the film itself can only find time to deal with the youngest for reasons that will arrive with depressing inevitability. Bob is content to write hits but becomes frustrated over Frankie's unwillingness to cut ties with the increasingly erratic Tommy. Tommy, for his part, is upset that he has become largely superfluous to the group he started and exacerbates the situation with a series of ill-advised financial moves that threatens to destroy the entire enterprise. As for Nick, he has problems too but lets face it, he is the bass player and as such, who cares?

Watching as "Jersey Boys" went about its resoundingly familiar paces, one thing continually leapt out at me and that was the almost complete lack of joy to be had in it. Although I must confess that I have never seen the show in its stage incarnation--largely because of my simple belief that the jukebox musical is one of the lowest forms of theater imaginable--I have to assume that there was some degree of good cheer on display that allowed it to spark with audiences to the degree that it did. And yet, even though the show's original writers, Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, did the adaptation, this version is so dour throughout that it feels as if a conscious effort to suck any trace of fun away for reasons I cannot begin to fathom. I can see things getting dark and serious in the second half when things begin to go downhill but even the scenes chronicling the group's dizzying rise to the top is given a funereal treatment. There is no sense of accomplishment or elation at any point--the scenes showing how the songs came together are perfunctory at best and the one scene that is almost a sure-fire crowd pleaser in a film of this type, the moment in which the struggling artist hears their song on the radio for the first time and practically levitates from excitement, is notable here only because of its absence. And since we haven't been able to get a sense of the giddy highs in the first half, the impact of the tragic lows in the second are almost completely diminished.

Of course, if Eastwood had included a scene with Valli and the boys hearing "Sherry" on the radio for the first time, it probably would have concluded with some codger abruptly changing the station to "Ac-cent-tchu-ate The Positive" while proclaiming "Now that's good music!" As I suggested earlier, Eastwood has never betrayed any particular interest in rock music in the past and he certainly doesn't start to here. Unfortunately, for a film like this to really work, it requires someone who actually does feel passionately about it in order to make it click--as dodgy as his career has been of late, Barry Levinson might have done an interesting job of conveying that excitement while maintaining a balance with the more dramatic elements. Through Eastwood's eyes (and ears), the songs on display here never come across as anything special and if he can't get jazzed by them, there is no way that viewers are going to either. The studio scenes are pro forma and the performance sequences are so restrained and devoid of energy that this may be the first film of its type where every shot of the concert audiences show them sitting politely in their seats at all times as if attending a recital. The only time that Eastwood tries to shake things up is during the finale, in which the entire cast gathers for a Broadway-style staging of "Oh What A Night" and while it starts off interestingly enough--if only because he is finally trying something different--it is so indifferently staged that you want to breathe a sigh of relief that he didn't try to present the entire thing in such an awkwardly stylized manner.

To give Eastwood some credit, he has avoided the temptation to cast the film with big-name actors who have little facility for singing and dancing but whose faces are familiar enough to presumably help boost the financial fortunes of a project whose box-office potential is not exactly a sure thing. Instead, he has stuck almost entirely with actors who have performed in the show on stage (in some cases as part of the original Broadway cast) to great acclaim but who are pretty much total unknowns to moviegoers. This is a noble idea in theory but it is an unfortunate fact that being able to hold a live audience spellbound does not automatically translate to similar success on the big screen--if that were the case, Madonna would have become the biggest movie star of all time instead of the butt of numerous jokes surrounding her cinematic escapades. The four leads are pleasant enough and can carry a tune but none of them really pop out as they presumably did on stage. Young does a good approximation of Frankie Valli's distinct voice but in between tunes, he is so meh that he feels like the third runner-up in a Bobby DiCicco impersonation contest. As the hotheaded Tommy, Piazza is hell-bent on being the most Joe Pesci-like character on display--despite this being a story in which the actual Joe Pesci is a part of the proceedings--and soon grows intolerable without ever being particularly interesting while the other two are eminently forgettable. The one thing that they all have in common is that during the big emotional climax set during the group's reunion at the 1990 Rock & Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony, they all look equally ill at ease in their wildly unconvincing old-age makeup, which appears to have been leftovers from the "J. Edgar" shoot" and which should have stayed left over.

The only actor who makes any real impression, perhaps inevitably, is Walken, who once again steals every scene that he is in and perhaps even some where he isn't. Ironically, he doesn't croon a single note throughout but his performance is the only thing about the film that really and truly sings. Other than that, "Jersey Boys" is an oddly passionless work from a director who seems to have undertaken the project as a way of shoring up his commercial credibility following the financial letdowns of his last couple of directorial efforts. As cinematic versions of jukebox musicals go, it is better than the likes of "Rock of Ages" and "Mama Mia" but not quite as exciting from a dramatic standpoint as downloading a Frankie Valli album from iTunes and while it may satisfy devoted fans of the original show, it is highly unlikely to win over new converts to the cause.

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originally posted: 06/20/14 12:25:32
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival For more in the 2014 Los Angeles Film Festival series, click here.

User Comments

12/01/15 brian Not sure why critics are picking at Eastwood's direction, including this well-paced biopic. 4 stars
1/24/15 Jeff WIlder Musical numbers done well. But on the whole it's emotionally inert and overly familiar. 3 stars
6/23/14 Bob Dog Downbeat story/upbeat songs - superb performances! 5 stars
6/22/14 Donna porter Worth seeing and hearing. maybe not true to the letter but the acting/ singing are great. 5 stars
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  20-Jun-2014 (R)
  DVD: 11-Nov-2014


  DVD: 11-Nov-2014

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