(Our friend Rohan Morbey continues to write prolifically at Stop Thinking For Yourself UK. He wrapped up a week of immersion in the week of Clint Eastwood's work with CE's latest, the musical biopic Jersey Boys, and we're delighted to cross-post his review here. And we strongly recommend that you follow Rohan on Twitter.)
There is a great scene in Clint Eastwood’s big screen version of the hit show Jersey Boys, where the actors perform a musical number in that old Hollywood style we no longer see; the set is clearly a set, the singing breaks out from conversation, people enter and leave the frame dancing, and for a few minutes the film is acknowledging both the roots of the show and the magical artifice of musical cinema.
The problem is these few minutes only arrive as the film is ending. As for the two hours which came before, Eastwood’s film is static, lifeless, drab, and dull; four words we do not associate with Eastwood but that aptly fit Jersey Boys for he has sorely missed the mark with this, his 33rd film as director.
What Eastwood saw in the film version of The Four Seasons’ rise to fame is a mystery. The script plays out like any number of stories we’ve seen before; kids from the ‘wrong side of the tracks’ get into some trouble, make a lot of money, get into money troubles, get married and then divorced, people turn to drink, someone dies, friendships are tested. The difference here is that the focus is on success found legally (apart from some small-time dodgy dealings which are not at the focus) which allows no room for intrigue, which adds pressure to the film’s ability to convince us that these characters are worth investing in. But what makes this story worth being told by one of American’s greatest living directors, as opposed to being made into a movie of the week which the script never rises above?
The film gives us no reason to really care about Frankie Valli and his band members’ rise to fame other than that they recorded some great songs, nor does it attempt to show us some dark secret history which has never been seen before on screen. Under Eastwood’s direction the film is too safe; the scenes where the band perform are a visual bore without any flourishes to get the audience enticed, relying purely on familiarity of the music to get by. Moreover, in his usual effective collaboration with Director of Photography Tom Stern in previous and recent films based on true stories or real people (J. Edgar, Changeling, Flags Of Our Fathers, Letters From Iwo Jima) there is a compelling reason to shoot the film in the usual grey, washed out colours with anamorphic lenses, but here it just stifles the film when it should be enjoying some of its lighter moments. I’d much sooner recommend Tom Hanks’ That Thing You Do! to anyone looking for a film about a band’s rise to fame and the fallout thereafter.
With clichéd characters, scenes, and flat direction, for the first time this feels to me like Eastwood isn’t comfortable with his material. I wonder if any director could have saved the film; Jon Favreau was supposed to direct at one point and although I have no reason to think he’d have done a better job, at least expectations would have been far lower. The matter is only made more crushing when we see how great the final scene is. If only someone had the backing to make a musical in that style again, I’d be first in line, but maybe Jersey Boys isn’t the appropriate material for that.
When you leave the cinema thinking the best thing about a movie based on a singer or band was the music, then you know it’s failed. The music is a given, we know it’s great and it’s up to the film makers to use this to their advantage; I know it’s perhaps an unfair comparison but look at how Oliver Stone shot The Doors and the story he attempted to tell. The music wasn’t the only thing that we took from that film for no one else could have made that movie like Stone. Jersey Boys could have been made by anyone.
Most directors make a dud in their career, and Jersey Boys is one of Eastwood’s weakest efforts behind the camera. Perhaps it’s a testament to that the large majority of his work is so damn great that this one sticks out.