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‘Jersey Boys’ has a messy bridge but hits the high notes

John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda in 'Jersey Boys.'
John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda in 'Jersey Boys.'Keith Bernstein (c) 2014 Warner Bros. Pictures

Jersey Boys

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“Don’t bore us—get to the chorus,” is an old songwriter’s adage that applies particularly well to director Clint Eastwood’s big screen adaptation of the Broadway hit “Jersey Boys.” People are going to go to this movie largely to see the show—and hear the hits by The Four Seasons.

Eastwood, however, lingers far too long on the “Goodfellas” wannabe backstory, teasing the audience mercilessly by having John Lloyd Young, as Frankie Valli, covering older songs before we finally get to hear the string of hits. The movie’s early resemblance to “Goodfellas” is perhaps intentionally ironic, as Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) apparently introduced songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who wrote the songs you’re going to be waiting for.

“Jersey Boys” does eventually deliver, and often finds clever ways to lead into the signature numbers, like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Bye Bye Baby” and “Who Loves You.” The movie soars when Young, Bergen, Vincent Piazza (as Tommy DeVito) and Michael Lomenda (as Nick Massi) take the stage and actually do those numbers, and audiences’ feet will be tapping. It’s a given those are the moments audiences will remember, and will probably have them recalling the movie as better than it actually is.

The movie breaks the fourth wall regularly as the main characters address the camera directly. This is a device that generally works better on stage than on the big screen, and Eastwood lets far too much screen time elapse without doing it once he’s started, taking the viewer however briefly out of the movie.

The movie’s advertising, and some of the dialogue later in the film, try to establish the theme as “Everybody remembers it how they need to.” A more “Rashomon”-like approach might have helped here, but the characters only contradict each other on niggling details, and with one or two exceptions, the narrative is conventionally linear. Ultimately the screenplay, by the show’s book authors Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, really focuses on the loyalty shared by guys who grew up on the streets together. There’s nothing wrong with this as a theme for a movie, other than the fact that it’s been done before, and just underscores Eastwood’s apparent determination to make “Good Fellas” with musical numbers.

The other major theme, the pitfalls of fame and fortune, has been done so many times, and sometimes better than here, that it’s hard not to wag a finger at the cliché. The character development is par for the course for a stage musical, where much of the stage time will be given to production numbers, but in a movie that’s two and a quarter hours long, we might have expected more. Eastwood has enough Oscars to end-run the usual studio temptation to cast an adaptation of a Broadway musical with movie stars. The primary cast, all of whom have appeared in stage productions of “Jersey Boys,” are effective, and their lack of recognizability to movie audiences is ultimately a plus.

The only big name in the cast is Christopher Walken as a benign gangster. Walken appears to have been recently embalmed but has lost none of his preternatural presence, and the cast appears to know that there’s no such thing as a scene with Christopher Walken that isn’t a Christopher Walken scene.

“Jersey Boys” isn’t as surprising a property for Eastwood as it might first appear. His Oscars® might be for “Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby,” and sure he cut his teeth on high-testosterone vehicles like “High Plains Drifter,” “The Eiger Sanction,” “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” “Sudden Impact” and “Heartbreak Ridge,” but he also directed “The Bridges of Madison County,” and music has been a major player in many of his movies, from his directorial debut with “Play Misty for Me,” in which he played a jazz DJ, to “Honkytonk Man” and his Charlie Parker biopic “Bird,” which was a passion project. The Oscar® winner knows how to put a movie together, and there are predictably few technical missteps here—which makes a couple of shockingly bad special effects (one green screen background as actors talk in a moving car wouldn’t have passed muster in the sixties) all the more jarring.

The fact that much of the movie takes place in New Jersey is no excuse for any movie to be this drab visually. And you can’t even blame it on Eastwood’s frequent director of photography Tom Stern (“Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Flags of Our Fathers,” “Letters from Iwo Jima,” “Gran Torino,” “Invictus,” “The Hunger Games). His cinematography has been bleached in post-production, a trite and overdone tactic which has been done to death over the past decade or so, and Eastwood is a prime offender. They had COLOR in the fifties, guys, just saying.

It might have helped the commercial prospects if the movie had foregone some of the profanity, which is the only reason this is rated R. On the other hand, it’s a very open question as to whether the teenaged audience would have gone to this even if it were rated PG-13. The audience that loves these songs (this critic included) are well past 17. And that audience probably wanted more singing and less talk. Too long, not well-focused and a tad too edgy for its own good, this is still an entertaining movie when it counts. “Jersey Boys” may have a messy bridge, but it does hit the high notes.

“Jersey Boys” is now playing at theaters across the Capital District, including The Bow Tie Movieland in Schenectady, The Regal Cinemas Clifton Park Stadium 10 & RPX, The Rotterdam Square Cinema, The Regal Cinemas Colonie Center Stadium 13 & RPX, The Regal Cinemas Crossgates Stadium 18 & IMAX, The Spectrum 7 on Delaware Avenue in Albany and The Regal Cinemas East Greenbush 8.