#31 in my ranking of Clint Eastwood’s films.
I have a feeling that the appeal of this film to Clint Eastwood wasn’t narrative but the evocation of the time of his youth, the music, the people, and the setting. Through movies like Gran Torino and Space Cowboys, it was obvious that Eastwood was looking at the contemporary world with contempt, and Jersey Boys allowed him time to simply disappear into that past he yearned for, at least for a time. That desire to evoke the era seems to have been the only thing that really ignited his imagination because the end product ends up being another example of a musical biopic gone wrong, of a Broadway production’s narrative falling apart once it hits another medium.
That being said, I found the first half of Jersey Boys to be really quite fun. The tale of how Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Bobby Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) came together in their youths to form the Four Seasons is a loose but rollickingly good time. Frankie and Tommy, in particular, are borderline hoods with only a handful of choices of how to get out of their neighborhood in Jersey, and they want to pursue fame, especially with Frankie’s unique voice. After playing a series of little clubs to limited success, Tommy brings in Bobby to write their music, and it’s the key they need to unlock success. From Frankie’s courtship of Mary (Renee Marino) to the effort to follow up on their demo tapes in New York to their discovery by Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and their opening tours, the movie has a light and fun feel that is really enjoyable to watch.
The problem really is the second half where things have to turn serious.
The characters are sketched well enough in the first half to support a lot of dramatic stuff to follow, including the pretty much totally cliched way the band decides to fall apart, but it can’t support stuff coming out of left field and entering the narrative three-quarters of the way through. Tommy has been accumulating huge personal debts to the mob, the wing headed by Gyp (Christopher Walken) with the enforcer Norm (Donnie Kehr) looking to collect no matter what. The film has to literally stop and do a flashback to give the full picture of what’s going on (although there were hints of it earlier like the Four Lovers, as they were called at the time, being unable to perform at a bowling alley because Tommy had built up bad debt to the chagrin of the alley’s owner). And, the flashback happens during their appearance at the Ed Sullivan Show, so instead of giving us this buildup to a high emotional moment that has to balance with a sudden threat to not only Tommy but the whole band, we have to take a break for a few minutes to watch them play at the Ohio State Fair where they get thrown in jail by local police for Tommy’s running out on a hotel bill from a year earlier.
So much of the final half hinges on Frankie feeling it necessary to take on Tommy’s debts for the sake of the band, and I didn’t really understand why, especially since the band immediately falls apart. Nick leaves completely to go back home to his wife. Tommy gets shuttled off to Las Vegas by the mob to keep an eye on him. That leaves Frankie and Bobby, and Bobby doesn’t want to perform anymore, he just wants to write. So, it becomes Frankie alone on the road to help pay Tommy’s debts. It’s such a huge decision, and Frankie honestly doesn’t get enough time to really justify it in any way. It just happens. He’s on the road for years paying off another man’s debts, and it keeps him even further apart from his family.
And that’s the emotional core of the second half, Frankie trying to connect with his family through it all, and it’s incredibly underwritten. If it were about his relationship with Mary, it might have worked since we had several scenes of them together throughout the film, but it’s actually about Frankie’s relationship with his eldest daughter Francine (Freya Tingley). She just appears as a child in one scene during one of Frankie’s few trips back home, and she barely says anything at all, the focus is on Mary. She’s a non-entity until Mary calls him saying that Francine had disappeared from the house, and Frankie goes home to try and help. He gets a scene where he finds her in the city and imparts some brief, thin advice on how to make it in the music business since that’s her dream (which hadn’t come up before that conversation, pretty much that line of dialogue), and that becomes the emotional hook of the film except…we never see her again because she dies. Really, she has one late scene with Frankie that’s odd at best, and then the whole rise to independent fame through the release of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is dependent on it emotionally. The second half of this film really falls flat on its face.
The first half is fun with all of the rise in power and music, and the second is a complete drag with plot turns and emotional hooks that are all underdeveloped by the time they actually have to come to fruition. Maybe this is a problem with adapting a larger stage play to a slightly more than two-hour long runtime in film, but based on my limited experience with Broadway musicals, I have a feeling that these issues are ingrained in the original material as well.
Eastwood did his thing and filmed quickly and efficiently the script he was given. He gave his actors, most of whom originated the roles on Broadway, space to create, and they do well in them. The problems are really at the script level and the need to follow the entire life of Frankie Valli from humble beginnings to his appearance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. If the emotional hook is really supposed to be Francine’s death, then we don’t need to see the beginning of the Four Seasons. If the point is supposed to be the history of the Four Seasons, then I’m not sure we need Francine’s death. It’s a script that simply takes on too much to do anything really effective with it. Still, the first half is actually quite fun.