Imagine a dog. The dog isn’t the best dog ever, but he’s a good dog. He’s got a lot of energy. He’s excitable. People like him. He’s got a lot of charm. And then an old guy, who used to be just aces with dogs, adopts him. You worry that the old guy isn’t as good with dogs as he used to be, but with his track record who are you to question him? The old guy takes the dog out for a ride and he has to stop and get smokes at the store and he leaves the dog in the car, all the windows rolled up, and the old guy gets caught up in some conversations and listening to some songs on the radio and so he doesn’t even realize that the dog is still in the car, slowly suffocating, and by the time he gets back to the car his neglect has left that dog a dead lump in the backseat.
That’s Jersey Boys.
This jukebox musical has two built-in advantages - the pop classics of the Four Seasons and a rise and fall story that’s not like every other music biopic. The movie version has a couple of advantages too, including John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway, and Vincent Piazza as the likably degenerate goombah Tommy DeVito. But director Clint Eastwood takes these advantages and pisses them away in a movie that’s the definition of anonymous direction, from its opening pan down from a grey sky to a street filled with old cars to stock standard performance scenes that drain the energy of great songs like Dawn (Go Away).
The story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is inherently dramatic. Neighborhood kid Frankie Castelluccio has a voice that’s somewhere between a cartoon mouse and a heavenly choir, and everybody know he’s headed for stardom, including two-bit hood and occasional guitarist Tommy DeVito. Tommy uses his natural hustling skills to put together a group, although the final piece comes in against his wishes - songwriter Bob Gaudio brings the magic songs that match Frankie’s voice. Frankie takes on the name Valli, the group becomes the Four Seasons and eventually stardom comes.
But the pull of the old neighborhood is too strong for Tommy, and he gets everybody deeper and deeper into debt; as Frankie and Bob try to keep making perfect pop songs, Tommy’s ways tear everything apart. The way that Frankie deals with it - being an Italian boy from the projects outside of Newark - is both touching and absolutely stupid. It’s a great story.
A great story that is smothered. Eastwood is still working with his editor Joel Cox, but both men have clearly lost a step in recent years. A party scene, where the nascent Four Seasons are introduced to New York’s high life, is leaden. Scenes that should end on funny punchlines just sit there an extra beat, like they’re waiting to go to commercial. Shots are framed in ways that are so unimaginative you could believe they just put the camera wherever there was the most space. Even scenes in a stereotypical Italian kitchen that should be full of life is static and stifled.
The first forty minutes of Jersey Boys sporadically threatens to come to life - Piazza’s bordering on cartoonish greaseball act is fun, and he knows how to spit the standard Italian phrases (Madonn! Stoonatz! Finook!) in an entertaining way - but the songs slowly peter out and the third act descends into stagey boredom. And the songs themselves, while great (I went home and bought the Greatest Hits of The Four Seasons), are presented with such disinterest that you’d rather close your eyes and just listen.
The stage show had the individual Four Seasons speaking directly to the audience, telling their stories, and Jersey Boys has that fourth wall breaking, but with almost no point. There’s never a sense we’re seeing different perspectives, and the asides are so scattered and unmotivated they feel like leftovers from a previous draft. It’s a pity that this conceit is wasted, because the idea of telling this story - which has so many facets - from multiple Rashomon-like POVs is fascinating, and probably better reflects the reality of the situation.
By the end of the movie - a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction complete with ludicrous old age make-up - you feel like you’ve lived through all four seasons of the year. The last half of the film is actually punishing, and each scene is more dire than the last. The end credits again threaten to come alive - a song and dance number on a studio backlot (half this movie is shot on clear studio backlot sets. You can almost see the golf carts just out of frame) featuring every character from the film should be a delight. But like the rest of the film it’s stiff, representative of a movie that feels old and worn out and slow.
But man, those songs.