Sunday, November 16, 2014

Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: Jersey Boys

Okay, it was finally available On Demand, so I watched it.  My impression was the same as when I saw the stage musical: Eh.

Though at least Jersey Boys the stage musical had color, an infectious energy, and a lot of songs from the Four Seasons and Frankie Valli catalogue.  At times, it gave hints of attempting to be more serious, but then was like, "Nah!  Time for the next hit number!"  The movie (directed by Clint Eastwood), by contrast, tries to be dramatic and meaningful, but ends up flat.

Plot Synopsis

For large stretches, Jersey Boys seems to think it's Backbeat, the gritty story of an up-and-coming band, only in this case, a band that is far less musically interesting and consequential.  Jersey Boys follows the formation and breakup of the Four Seasons in the 50s and 60s, a band consisting of Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, Bob Gaudio, and Frankie Valli, aka "the Special One."  Tommy, Nick, and Frankie are blue collar Italian boys living in "Joisey," pulling off crimes that land them in jail for a few months at a time.  In between, they play in a band formed by Tommy.  Tommy recognizes that Frankie is Special, what with his ability to make his voice all weird and girly with his falsetto, and establishes him as lead singer.  Once singer-songwriting prodigy Bob Gaudio joins, the group is complete.  The Four Seasons go on to record hit after hit (as shown in this real life medley of the group), before tensions inevitably tear the band apart.

The Good

Songs and Singing.  At least the movie adaptation of a jukebox musical doesn't ruin the songs on which the musical is based.  Many audience members (even those born well after the Four Seasons broke up) will recognize tunes like "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man."  To the movie's credit, they are sung live rather than pre-recorded, and it adds some much-needed spontaneity.  And John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway, does have a voice eerily similar to the real Valli's voice.  

It Wasn't As Bad As Rock of Ages.  Really, it wasn't.  Jersey Boys at least meets the threshold of respectability, which is more than I could say of certain other jukebox musicals.  Though Rock of Ages had at least a bit of an interesting angle with hair metal and... nope, never mind, not gonna give it any credit.  It just sucked.

The Bad

Flat Story.  An interesting story could have been formed about the Four Seasons, even if they weren't the most consequential band of the 60s.  For instance, rather than focus on Valli, whose life (as portrayed) is less than compelling, the story could have focused on Bob Gaudio, who recorded his first hit as a teenager ("Short Shorts") and entered the band much, much younger than his bandmates.  (Nick Massi, the oldest, was 15 years older.)  It would have been interesting to portray Gaudio's prior experience with music, followed by his experience living and touring with much older, not necessarily very nice men.

That said, even a band story that follows the usual rise-and-fall cliches could have been worthwhile.  In some respects, Jersey Boys is highly similar to Dreamgirls.  Only in the latter's case, it also has the (somewhat fictionalized) rise of Motown, as well as more energy, color, and emotion.  Jersey Boys does not adopt any unique angle -- not even one about the mob's influence on the music business -- and barely tries to make you care about the band as a whole before it breaks up.
Flat Characters.  Much of what is wrong with the story is due to the lack of decent characterization.  Vincent Piazza is a highlight as DeVito, but he's given so little to work with.  He's just a charismatic dirtbag who eventually fuels the band's demise.  Valli, the central character of the movie, just has affairs and a half-hearted relationship with his teenage daughter (likely only to build empathy for when she dies of a drug overdose).  There is no sense that he wants something more or offers something new, apart from his Angelic voice.  Same goes for the other characters.  In real life, the band had appeared on Ed Sullivan (as the Four Lovers) before Gaudio even joined, so there must have been something driving them.  In the movie, singing is like some hobby they have on the side until Gaudio comes along.  There's no sense of chemistry or shared history with these characters.  They get together because the plot demands it and then they break up.

Flat Setting.  The setting, somber acting style, and color scheme might have been appropriate if this were, say, The Fighter.  Or another Clint Eastwood project like Million Dollar Baby.  Here, it absolutely drags the movie down.  As with Mamma Mia!, the only thing that might have made this movie enjoyable was more color and sparkle, not less.     

Lack of Context.  The 60s was possibly the 20th Century's most revolutionary decade in music, yet you would never know it from this movie.  Beatles who?  Bob Dylan?  Motown?  It might have been interesting to watch the Four Seasons struggle to stay relevant until their breakup in 1966, but only one other band is even mentioned in Jersey Boys, and that is a female singing group, the Angels.  I think there was more cultural context in That Thing You Do.


While the source material was never great, Jersey Boys did itself no favors by toning down the boisterous pop tunes and pretending to be The Godfather.  Instead of being an infectious movie with tunes that you were singing as you left the theatre,* it's a gray, gritty picture about people we have no reason to care for.

* Well, except for the final number, which actually looked and sounded like it came from a musical.

Other Movie Musicals That Got It Wrong: The Phantom of the Opera, Evita, RENT, Across the Universe, Rock of Ages, Hairspray

Movie Musicals That Got It Right: Dreamgirls, Les Miserables, Chicago, Mamma

The above images are used under the Fair Use Doctrine.

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