Thursday, June 19, 2014

Movie Review: Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys film

Different storytelling mediums have their advantages and disadvantages, obviously. Live theater is an intimate affair, giving the audience a story they can reach out and touch while film trades it's two-dimensionality for a larger production scale freed from the confines of a dimly-lit stage.
Peculiar, then, is the way director Clint Eastwood chooses to approach his adaptation of Jersey Boys, one of the most celebrated and long-running musicals on Broadway. The film seems hesitant to shirk off its restraints and explore the big wide world, instead cramming its characters into small spaces and spending the bulk of its running time on one stage or another.

While that approach is much more realism-minded than the pseudo-fantasy elements of a 'Chicago,' 'Music Man' or 'West Side Story' (that is to say the singing is actually "singing"), it can also be a little lifeless, like a dramatized bizzaro-installment of an E! True Hollywood Story.

Instead of a being pulled into a world of song, the audience is given an experience akin to reading the Frankie Valli Wikipedia page while a great soundtrack plays in the background.

'Jersey Boys' follows the creation of the Four Seasons from their humble beginnings as petty criminals-cum-crooners in Newark, New Jersey through their rise to fame as the band that might've been The Beatles if The Beatles had never shown up.

The film uses fourth-wall piercing testimonials to advance the story, bouncing from the perspective of one band mate to another – though we never hear directly from front-man Valli (née Castelluccio). As can be expected, the band forms, the band struggles, the band catches a break, the band basks in success, then jealousies, infidelities and poor financial management before crumbling only to come back together for a group hug and a literal song and dance.

I've never seen the stage production of 'Jersey Boys' so I can't speak to how faithfully or unfaithfully director Clint Eastwood hewed to the source material. What I didn't expect was how gloomy Eastwood's film is, shot with the same unsaturated lens as J. Edgar and punctuated only sporadically by moments of musical levity.

And speaking of J. Edgar, Eastwood again makes use of woefully unconvincing old-age makeup to launch his core cast a few decades into the future at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The geriatric version of John Lloyd Young's Frankie Valli is particularly egregious, with his doughy and sagging flesh barely clinging to his face. The scene, albeit brief, is indicative of the larger film, which paints a portrait in dull grey of a group responsible for some of the most colorful and toe-tappiest tunes of the 60s and 70s.

At this point it's assumed that any big name musical act went through its dark periods, and yet the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons doesn't quite reach the same emotional depths of, say, 'Ray' or 'Walk The Line', resulting in a biopic that waxes melodramatic and never quite justifies its own existence.

But the music is great, with the core cast – wisely populated by unknowns – delivering fitting tributes to the iconic band. The script runs through the hits while also shining the spotlight on some lesser known gems, resulting in a movie that will likely be forgotten before the next marquee change but will inspire new Spotify playlists that live on.

Grade: B- 

*Jersey Boys opens nationwide on Friday, June 20 

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