By Simon Miraudo
July 1, 2014
Here’s what’s interesting about Jersey Boys (and pay attention now because little else is): the Broadway sensation and now Clint Eastwood movie, based upon the career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is the rare music biopic to have zero interest in the quest for artistic perfection. It concerns guys who, as far as we can tell, have no real creative aspirations beyond making a living and being able to hang out with one another at the same time. The songs – though we have to go through the cliché of seeing the precise moments of inspiration when someone accidentally utters a future, legendary title – never actually reflect any major life events. They’re just disposable pop for the Four Seasons to make money from. And for a quartet of New Jersey natives who came this close to joining the mob, we’re told that’s good enough.
As they rose from the ranks of the local pool halls to the hallowed set of The Ed Sullivan Show, crooning in perfect synchronicity meaningless hits like Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry and Walk Like a Man, I wondered: did they deserve the recognition? Jersey Boys, through the transcendental magic of the music and its performers, makes a good enough case that they did. Just. Credit for that goes to its stars, especially Vincent Piazza, who is particularly watchable as Tommy DeVito, the troubled huckster who started the band for every reason except for all the honourable ones. John Lloyd Young, the ageless, Tony-winning actor who originated the part of Valli on Broadway, is a ringer for the diminutive icon, and it is no surprise Eastwood recruited him again here. Some other stage regulars hired for this cinematic retelling, sadly, standout in all the wrong ways.
The experienced cast help to hide the usual flaw in Eastwood’s notorious cut-and-run style. (For the other result, in which inexperienced actors are only given a handful of takes to get it right, and fail, see Gran Torino.) His technical team also clearly knows by now how to recreate that sleek, grey ‘Eastwood sheen’ in a dash, playing with shadows in a manner that at least seems like some time was taken to perfect the visual landscape. Screenwriters Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice have adapted their own book for the hit jukebox musical, and though their Jersey Boys hits a lot of the typical beats of these kinds of flicks, when those guys start singing those songs, the quality of the picture around them barely matters anymore.
There’s a reason why so many non-English language speakers audition for Idol and The X Factor and The Voice, mimicking glass-shattering anthems phonetically (for which they’re mercilessly mocked). Music translates. Music is that intangible something. The meaning of a certain song, and its inspiration, might never equal the significance of an impossible voice, impossible in any language, and that is precisely what Frankie Valli was armed with and makes his story worth telling.
Jersey Boys, at times, had me questioning what’s to be valued in art. Should Frankie and his buddies have suffered more? Put more of their pain into their music? Told tales of 1950’s New Jersey (which, shockingly, they never do)? The film itself doesn’t delve that deep into its subjects, and their eventual entry into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame is presented as more of a given rather than an enthusiastic defence for their talents after two hours of soul searching. But when Christopher Walken’s gangster wells up at Valli’s rendition of ‘My Mother’s Eyes,’ making him forever indebted to him, we have no trouble believing this turn of events. It’s that impossible voice.
Still, a little something has been lost in the translation to celluloid. What succeeded on Broadway was the uncanny resurrection of an era and the indelible songs that defined it, culminating in a live concert of a troupe that modern-day viewers could only dream of seeing perform (and certainly so in their youthful register). When Jersey Boys closes with a climactic, non-canonical curtain call, the entire cast singing along to ‘Oh, What a Night,’ it’s charming but hardly stand-in-your-seat stuff. When they finish, the camera lingers on the performers, out-of-breath, arms open to the silence of the cinema. Did Eastwood leave an applause break? There might not be a sadder image in 2014 than the cast of Jersey Boys awaiting their ovation as a half-empty matinee clears out, sporadically-clapping, maybe, out of obligation.
Jersey Boys arrives in Australian cinemas July 3, 2014.