Clint Eastwood, the big-time jazzbo who shoots every scene as though it were set inside of a coffin, is an odd fit for a feature-length tribute to the age of matching-blazer music. Nonetheless, he directs the hell out of Jersey Boys, a jukebox musical about ’60s hit makers Frankie Valli And The Four Seasons; there aren’t many directors out there who could fluidly pull off three different fourth-wall-breaking on-camera narrators, or create the eerie chill of the moment where Valli (John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway) sings the opening verse of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” for the first time.
The unfortunate trade-off of Eastwood’s efficient, real-deal classical direction is his stubborn commitment to the script. In this case, that means eliding everything artistically interesting that the group ever did (like, say, The Genuine Imitation Life Gazette) and loading the back end of the movie with a mushy hit-by-hit structure that probably worked like gangbusters on stage, but drags on screen. Eastwood’s integrity puts the movie in a double bind; he wholly commits to an underdeveloped drama that was designed only to set up extended musical numbers, and, in the process, makes the songs seem intrusive and padded.
Once the back-to-back concert montages kick in, the characters start shedding personality traits, paradoxically becoming less and less well developed as the movie draws to a close. Sensitive small-town wunderkind Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) turns into a generic priss with a Van Dyke beard; rough-edged slickster Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) disappears altogether; and oafish bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) becomes, well, a less interesting oafish bass player. Valli’s independent-minded wife, Mary (Renée Marino), turns into a pill-popping shrew. Valli himself remains a total cypher; at first, the movie’s distance from him (he’s the only band member who doesn’t serve as a narrator) seems like a gutsy move. But by the final act, it begins to resemble unadulterated idol worship.
As Jersey Boys tells it, the group’s early years—narrated mostly by DeVito, who addresses the viewer like a guest who has to be shown around the neighborhood—were defined as much by crime as by music. (There’s a considerable overlap with Goodfellas, and hometown pal Joe Pesci—whose Goodfellas character was named after DeVito—turns up, played by Joey Russo.) DeVito is introduced working as a gofer for Genovese boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken); between nightclub sets, he pulls jobs with Massi. Valli serves as their lookout, using his powerful falsetto to signal when the cops are coming. Rehearsals are used as cover for burglaries. When straight-laced Gaudio signs on, he discovers that his bandmates make more money selling stolen clothes than playing shows.
There’s a big gulf between the group’s public image and its members’ personal lives, and that gulf only gets bigger once it’s factored in that the lyrics to most of their hits—and all of the songs included in Jersey Boys—were penned by the more-or-less openly gay Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). There’s a story to be told here about the value of artifice and music as a kind of fantasy life, but Jersey Boys’ script (adapted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice from their hit Broadway show) isn’t interested in telling it. Even Eastwood’s signature lean, overcast style—which manages to invest the vague and inconsistent narrative with a sense of place and atmosphere—can’t overcome Brickman and Elice’s fundamentally flawed structure, which feels like the first half of a period drama cut together with the middle third of a tribute show.