People wondered if Clint Eastwood could direct a musical, and after seeing Jersey Boys it's obvious he still hasn't tried.
Eastwood pulled the plug on the jukebox musical based on the formidable song catalog of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, going stingy with the music and too generous with material that on stage is only filler between tunes. The mamaluke drama behind the rise and stumble of this seminal rock 'n' roll band is nothing we haven't seen in movies before, maybe starring Joe Pesci (who's a character here … really) with the Four Seasons on the soundtrack.
Nearly an hour passes before the first of too few complete musical performances, while we soak up the New Jersey neighborhood where 16-year-old Frankie Castelluccio, a good kid with an angel's falsetto, works in a barbershop. Frankie is played by John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony in the role, apparently for a voice that can hit peaks like Valli, which the movie won't let him use as much.
Local fixer Gyp DeCarlo, played by Christopher (sleep) Walken, takes a shine to Frankie, offering support any time, as friendly mobsters do. Cruder temptation comes from Frankie's delinquent pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza, the movie's liveliest performance). Tommy hires Frankie as lookout for a burglary, and then as lead singer for his band, with vices attached. Nothing bad, though. By the end of Jersey Boys you almost wish there was a juicier scandal or tragedy to the Four Seasons story. Covering Tommy's mob debts isn't a sexy cinematic hook.
The band takes a big step toward stardom with the addition of Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), whose composing and negotiating skills lead to chronic tension with Tommy. Bob is introduced by Joey (i.e. Joe) Pesci, played in caricature by Joseph Russo, sneaking in a Goodfellas reference. Gaudio and Valli are executive producers, so despite a clunky Rashomon angle in which characters break down the fourth wall to explain their side of the story, Jersey Boys tilts in their favor.
Young, Bergen and Michael Lomenda as bassist Nick Massi were hired for their stage experience with the roles. Then the script — adapted by creators Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise — takes away much of what they did best on stage. They're also more adept at playing to rafters, and their attempts at understatement barely register. Piazza (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) has a better idea of how it's done, and it shows.
Eastwood's unvarnished storytelling style, usually his strength as a filmmaker, is terribly out of place here. If ever a movie needed flashbacks, dream sequences, any attempt no matter how cliche to goose the narrative, it's this one. He only films musical numbers as television and nightclub performances, and audiences as the polite nodders and clappers they probably were in the '50s and '60s, when a little choreography might go a long way. Or maybe not, judging by an end credits cast dance, filmed with the verve of a Sun City Center flash mob.
Jersey Boys is one of the most uninspired movie musicals since Eastwood sang-talked to the trees in Paint Your Wagon. When Valli's great songs arrive — Sherry, Walk Like a Man, a chronologically misplaced My Eyes Adored You — Young's mimicry and our memories lift some of that faded Polaroid pall from a creaky movie. The R rating isn't necessary; no one under 17 will be interested, anyway.
Steve Persall can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8365. Follow @StevePersall on Twitter.