Clint Eastwood's first musical as a director never fully decides what kind of movie it wants to be.
Though based on a smash-hit jukebox tuner that won four Tonys, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of “Jersey Boys” can’t properly be described as a full-on musical. It does often hint at becoming one, just as it hints at becoming a “La Bamba”-esque early rock study, a cautionary tale about organized crime, and a sort of “Rashomon”-influenced take on the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But by the time it hits its first real Broadway-style production number over the closing credits, “Jersey Boys” doesn’t seem to have gotten any closer to deciding what kind of movie it wants to be. Embracing neither the fizzy energy of a Vegas-ready tuner, nor the grit of a warts-and-all biopic, the film nonetheless has its own peculiar charms, and should be able to capitalize on the source material’s enduring popularity for a respectable if modest B.O. haul.
Though Eastwood didn’t have the best of luck with musicals as an actor, this property ought to have been well within his directorial wheelhouse. As a helmer, he’s always had an astute ear for music; he excels at regionally specific ambiance and period studies, and here he avoids the musicvideo shooting style that has turned so many recent film tuners into brightly colored slurry. But as handsome as his compositions are, Eastwood’s filmmaking simply doesn’t have the snap or the feel for rhythm that the script’s rapid-fire theatrical patter requires, and the relative dearth of prominent musical performances turns what could have been a dancing-in-the-aisles romp into a bit of a slog.
Eastwood’s somber dramatic focus is on display from the start, as he opens not with a song, but rather a thoroughly Scorsesean scene inside a Belleville, N.J., barbershop in the 1950s: Golden-throated 16-year-old Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) is a barber in training, attending to local mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). It’s the kind of neighborhood where, as petty criminal and guitarist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) tells the camera in direct address, the only ways to escape are joining the army, getting “mobbed up,” or getting famous. “For us,” he says, “it was two out of three.”
DeVito enlists Castelluccio as a lookout for a heist that goes sour and lands Tommy in prison, but from these inauspicious beginnings the seeds of the Four Seasons are sown. With Castelluccio renaming himself Frankie Valli, and DeVito’s fellow profiteer Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) joining on bass, the group is introduced to precocious songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) by wannabe talent scout Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo) — later known simply as Joe Pesci — and finally finds its sound.
Though the first 45 minutes are littered with sporadic song fragments, it’s only here that the film starts to truly resemble a musical, with Gaudio gathering his new bandmates around the piano to play “Cry for Me,” as each man joins in turn. It’s the sort of scene that was orchestrated far more organically in “Once,” but it’s nonetheless effective at conveying the joy of sudden harmonic epiphany. After they catch the ear of flamboyant producer-lyricist Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle, adding some welcome shadings to what could have been a one-joke gay stereotype), the Four Seasons shoot to the top of the charts.
The music finally comes alive in the middle section that follows. Staging three consecutive numbers as live television performances, Eastwood shifts among wide angles from way up in the cheap seats, glimpses from behind the TV monitors, and slightly obstructed views from inside the audience pit in front of the stage. This style might sap the sequences of some of the explosive engagement that a flashier director like Rob Marshall might have brought to the numbers, but it manages to honor the period and the material’s stage origins in a nicely unshowy way.
After this high, however, comes a rather long hangover. Interpersonal squabbles, money woes, groupies, domestic drama and lingering mob connections all cause predictable problems in predictable ways, and the film’s focus starts to blur, going for long stretches without any music at all. Even though each of the group’s four members take turns narrating their side of the story — breaking the fourth wall in a broadly theatrical manner for which Eastwood never finds a proper cinematic correlative — none of them really deepen into fully dimensional men.
Initially providing doses of Puckish mischief, DeVito’s insouciance gradually curdles into irritation, and he disappears for much of the last third. Valli remains unknowable, a good-hearted blue-collar entertainer without much of an apparent life. Gaudio, who bears an uncanny resemblance to “Election”-era Chris Klein, goes from teetotaling, T.S. Eliot-quoting square to bearded artiste with little in between. And poor Massi is the bass player.
Aside from “Boardwalk Empire” support player Piazza, three of the four leads were drawn from various stage iterations of “Jersey Boys,” and while all are solid in their respective roles (Tony winner Young does a stunning job channeling Valli’s sublime falsetto), they only occasionally seem to be surfing the same wave. Christopher Walken creates most of the film’s laughs by simple virtue of being Christopher Walken, but his doddering don screams out for a bigger, broader performance. The marvelously venomous Renee Marino gets a fantastic introductory scene as Valli’s first wife, Mary, and is then subsequently squandered as a one-note boozy nag.
Production designer James J. Murakami expends a good deal of energy on vintage period details, but it’s disappointing how little the story itself explores such an exciting era for music. Four Seasons contemporaries like the Beatles and the Beach Boys are never mentioned; nor is there any discussion of the group’s distinctive style, or the way a quartet with two ex-con members managed to sell themselves as such a squeaky-clean outfit. We see the boys receive a cake in honor of their three consecutive No. 1 singles, but we never get an idea what pop stardom in the early 1960s must have felt like. And the only real nod to the vicissitudes of recording comes via an unintentionally hilarious scene where Crewe, after hearing four seconds of “Sherry” over the phone, immediately declares his intention to double-track Valli’s voice on the record, helpfully hollering, “it’s never been done before!”
On a technical level, the film is strangely hit-and-miss. Tom Stern’s shadowy photography can be gorgeously low-key in one scene, then garishly lit and sheened with yellow in the next. Eastwood and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach pull off some graceful slow pans and Sorkinesque walk-and-talks, only for some hideous rear projection to mar a few driving scenes. Costume designer Deborah Hopper does great work, but while the old-age makeup on display in the closing scenes is a noticeable improvement on “J. Edgar,” it still might elicit a chuckle or two.