Combustible Celluloid
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With: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Renée Marino, Kathrine Narducci, Lou Volpe, Freya Tingley, Grace Kelley, Elizabeth Hunter, Mike Doyle, Rob Marnell, Johnny Cannizzaro, Donnie Kehr, Jeremy Luke
Written by: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, based on their play
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R for language throughout
Running Time: 134
Date: 06/20/2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

3 Stars (out of 4)

What a Night

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

Everyone knows that Clint Eastwood is a music fan. His directorial debut Play Misty for Me included a scene at the Monterey Jazz Festival, he directed the great biopic of Charlie Parker, Bird (1988), and produced the documentary Thelonious Monk: Straight No Chaser. But as far as I can tell, he has never really shown an interest in 1960s pop music, and he has never used any music by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons in any of his movies. So what drew him to making the film version of the big Broadway hit Jersey Boys remains a mystery. The finished film exhibits no real hints of personal passion.

Jersey Boys tells the story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and his rise to fame from a poor Brooklyn neighborhood. The older criminal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) takes him under his wing and looks after him, getting him his first gigs and his first girls. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is the stalwart third member of the group. Frankie marries early, to the feisty Mary (Renée Marino). Finally, songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) joins the band.

Bob writes, or co-writes the #1 hit songs "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," and "Big Girls Don't Cry," and success comes calling. From there, it's the same old story. Band members fight with girlfriends and spouses, and fight with each other. Little coincidences, miracles and prophecies happen that suggest great things to come. Eventually it comes out that Tommy has gone deeply in debt with loan sharks and Frankie agrees to take on the debt. Frankie's daughter becomes a problem child, thanks to having no father figure while growing up, etc.

What Eastwood does with Jersey Boys is that he avoids the big, bulldozer bombast usually involved when big Broadway musicals are adapted to the screen. (See Les Miserables, Chicago, The Phantom of the Opera, Dreamgirls, or any number of recent items.) He blesses it with his effortless storytelling and craftsman's flow.

But what he doesn't do is rescue it, as he rescued Invictus (2009), once it automatically turns from a musical into a biopic formula. I always liken it to a stone skipping across the surface of a lake, hitting highlights, but never getting very deep.

It's astounding how the lives of real people can suddenly turn into a total cliche when adapted to this kind of movie. It's as if every musician in history has the exact same story. The things I hate most about these movies is that the supporting characters, including all the lovers, bad guys, etc., totally fail to develop any kind of character. At best, they may get one good scene to show their stuff, before they disappear for long stretches.

Worse is when a movie follows a long career and we have to deal with the dreaded age makeup; the work here is just painfully awful. (When it comes time to make the Kurt Cobain or Amy Winehouse movies, this at least won't be a problem.)

Jersey Boys comes to life during the songs, which were not particularly works of genius, but were great pop songs that still sound great. It's also blessed with Christopher Walken in a supporting role as a powerful, aging gangster called "Gyp." He has his best moment when Frankie sings a song that moves him to tears.

I guess one actor, Joseph Russo, is supposed to be playing the young up-and-coming actor Joe Pesci (Raging Bull, GoodFellas), who was actually involved in Frankie's story, but I didn't pick up on this until after the movie.

Readers of my work here and elsewhere know that I'm a Clint Eastwood fan of the most breathless kind, and usually go the extra mile to explore movies he's done (or at least defend them when they're misunderstood). So my ambivalence about Jersey Boys probably indicates that it's definitely one of his lesser movies, and not one that I'd be interested in seeing again anytime soon. However, perhaps fans of the Broadway show will find something to love here, especially since many actors were imported from the live show. Perhaps they, if nobody else, will not be able to take their eyes off of it.

Warner Home Video released a two-disc set with a DVD and a Blu-ray. The muted, old-fashioned, brownish color palette looks great, and the music is clear and strong. It comes with three short featurettes, "From Broadway to the Big Screen" (22 minutes), "Too Good to Be True" (5 minutes), about the actors who went from the initial play to the movie; and "Oh What a Night to Remember" (5 minutes), about the ending. Eastwood appears as one of the talking heads. Otherwise, we get several audio tracks, optional subtitles, and trailers at startup.

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