A Tony-winning musical about a Hall of Fame rock group by an Oscar-winning director—on paper, it sounds like a sure-fire hit. So why did Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys fall flat in theaters this weekend?
Simply because Clint Eastwood should have never directed it in the first place.
When Jersey Boys opened on Broadway back in 2005, it broke the mold of the emerging trend of “jukebox musicals”—that is, musicals that repurposed pre-existing songs and placed them into stories—by using the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons that were already loved and adored by millions to tell their own story. It went on to win four Tony Awards including Best Musical and Best Lead Actor in a Musical for the relative unknown John Lloyd Young, who played Frankie Valli.
From that point on, the story of four guys who went from singing under a street lamp to the biggest spotlights seemed destined to be adapted for the big screen. Right after Jersey Boys made Broadway its new stomping ground, films of Dreamgirls, Hairspray, and Mamma Mia! were hitting theaters around the world and studios were green-lighting movie musical after movie musical.
Thus, many theater fans—including myself—were puzzled when Clint Eastwood announced his plans to direct the movie. Eastwood is undeniably a terrific actor and director, but nothing about no-frills dramas like Million Dollar Baby or Letters from Iwo Jima ever indicated that the octogenarian was the kind of guy interested in directing a movie musical. Granted, the story of the Four Seasons has darker elements to it, like gang dealings and prison sentences. But that’s only one part of Jersey Boys’ excellent story. Eastwood tried to take the theatricality out of the musical and add his own signature grit—with less than stellar results.
For starters, Eastwood cuts a significant amount of music and vibrancy from the stage show to essentially take away some moments that may seem too theatrical for the screen. He also focuses too much on the small plot of the one movie star in the film (Christopher Walken) of the band’s financial troubles, which means the real story of how this group became big enough to have financial problems doesn’t get enough attention at points. There’s no cultural context around the Four Seasons at the time either; the script never hints at who their competition was at the time or even how successful they were, save for one throwaway line towards the end of the film about the Four Seasons selling 100 million records.
Eastwood does adopt the breaking-the-fourth-wall technique that writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice used first on Broadway: Each of the four members of the group takes a period of the film to narrate their version of the story into the camera. This worked onstage; the show had a much faster pace than the film, and the interactive dialogue and storytelling helped further plot and (more importantly) character development. Sitting in a Broadway theatre, the technique allowed for the actors to connect with the audience on a personal level. But much of that was lost in the film, especially since Eastwood took some creative liberties with the story’s chronology that make the sequence of events confusing at one point when the groups’ financial problems supposedly began. The film ends in 1990 as the Four Seasons are reunited while being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Unfortunately, Clint Eastwood made Jersey Boys as if it were currently 1990; Eastwood’s green-screen techniques and makeup department look like they could even be from the ’80s.
Eastwood seemingly didn’t learn what other film directors had from the success of films like Dreamgirls and Chicago and the failure of movies like Nine; musicals are theatrical because that’s where the genre was created, on stage. You would think Eastwood would have an easier job with this since many of the musical numbers in Jersey Boys are written as musical performances anyway. It could even be said that he didn’t really make a musical at all as unlike in the stage version, the songs in the film (except maybe “Sherry”) were used as placeholders, not plot points.
Furthermore, casting John Lloyd Young again as Frankie Valli is about as exciting as Alec Baldwin getting into trouble on social media: You take a look because you’re interested, but realize it’s nothing new. Vincent Piazza, the only actor of the four leads who had never appeared in the stage version before, deserves credit for his great performance as Tommy DeVito. (Whether or not Piazza actually has musical talents is still unknown to me based on his performance because he was never actually given the opportunity to show it). I may have been more disappointed with the lack of cohesive choreography anyway throughout, one of Four Seasons’ signatures and a detail that didn’t seem to catch Eastwood’s eye while editing.
I would have loved to have seen Adam Shankman direct the Jersey Boys film. He has had plenty of experience, both good (Hairspray) and bad (Rock of Ages), of adapting Broadway musicals into film, and I think his take on the time period and tone would have been more appropriate based on his previous work. But he would have also still found the comedy in the film and added more color, both figuratively and literally, to an otherwise dark picture. This is not to say, of course, that Clint Eastwood is a bad director (two Oscars prove that wrong). But Jersey Boys shows he can’t be expected to succeed in every genre.