There are two terrific shots in Clint Eastwood’s film translation of the Broadway musical “Jersey Boys” that suggest he might have made a different and possibly better movie than the one opening in theaters Friday.
The first is his quick portrait of the Brill Building, the center of New York City’s pop music industry in the 1950s and 1960s. The camera frames the building’s famous name then tracks up, revealing, in window after window, musical acts in a multitude of genres trying to win the attention of skeptical record producers. Into this percolator enter the two most talented of our four heroes, singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) of the pop group that has not yet dubbed itself the Four Seasons.
All that aspiration, all that desperate and diverse striving for attention, and we are separated from it by glass. I found myself longing for Eastwood to linger on some of those musicians, to enter the studio with them, to provide some context for the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Indeed I spent much of the film hoping Eastwood might break his fidelity to the breezy musical to uncover some real intimacy in the story – some depth, some authenticity – that would justify spending more than two hours on a movie about masters of the two-and-a-half-minute pop song.
But maybe it’s silly to wish Eastwood had made a different film. So popular is the stage musical, still going strong nine years after its first curtain, that a director would have to be exceedingly brave, perhaps even foolish, to monkey with the elements of its success. It’s a simple rags-to-riches-to-dissolution-to-tearful-reunion story, punctuated by the requisite infighting and personal struggles, mixed with a little lighthearted mob action, and all hanging on Valli’s extraordinary voice and those shimmering hit songs.
Eastwood doesn’t stray far from the spirit and substance of the Broadway musical. He cast three veterans of the stage productions including Young, who originated the role of Valli in 2005. (Bergen and Michael Lomenda, as bassist Nick Massi, also come from the stage. Vincent Piazza, who plays Tommy DeVito, the band’s founder and early leader, is best known for his role in HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire.”)
The movie’s script was adapted by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, who wrote the book for the musical. So stagey are some of the movie’s lines, and so accustomed are the actors to delivering them to a live audience, that they seem to wait a beat to give the audience room to laugh, or sigh, or whatever is appropriate. On stage, that beat is necessary. On film, the effect is bizarre, reminding us that we’re being told a story, and therefore that the story may be only somewhat true, as the conventions of fictionalization permit.
Eastwood also makes use of soliloquies, in which each of the Four Seasons takes a turn speaking directly to the camera, providing his perspective on the band’s story. This, too, is lifted from the stage musical, which is divided into four seasons, each narrated by a different band member.
There are plenty of entertaining moments in the film, but it’s often a long walk from one to the next. The film bogs down in melodrama between the musical numbers – which are lovely to hear – and the expert comic relief offered by Christopher Walken. As the mob boss Gyp DeCarlo, a guardian angel to these neighborhood kids who make it big in show business, Walken is great.
Finally, the other terrific shot: As the end credits begin to roll, we’re treated to a full-on Broadway production number. The actors all pour out into a city street, singing and dancing to “December, 1963 (Oh What a Night).” As the music ends, they strike and hold exuberant poses. Pure staged theater – and here Eastwood does something interesting. He brings his camera in tight on the actors, one after another, to reveal the sheen of perspiration on their faces and arms, their chests rising and falling, their smiles locked in place as their muscles quiver from the exertion of the dance and the held pose.
You might not see that strain, the hard work that performers do to tell stories and create inspired moments, from 15 rows back in any of the theaters that have hosted stage productions of “Jersey Boys.” It takes a camera, close up and lingering, to capture that. I wonder what intimate, resonant truths might have been revealed about show business in a movie that took its cue from that final shot.