As an exercise in expanding one’s horizons and challenging one’s preconceived notions, we have begun to see movies that we definitely would not normally see due to our own prejudices, valid or not. This section is entitled “Movies I Don’t Want to Watch.”
Despite a background in theatre, I am only mildly versed in deep underworld that is musical theatre. I did several at a community theatre level and bought a few soundtracks, and can pretty much just skim the surface of knowledge of this vast subculture of the arts. I like a good number of musicals because hey, singing and dancing is fun. I love only a few, which are the ones able to meld singing and dancing with a story that is compelling and thoughtful. There is one type of musical, however, that I absolutely loathe. It is the type so blatantly lazy and trite that it makes the intellectual part of my brain bleed in agony. The textbook term for this type is “jukebox musical,” I know it as Let’s Take Existing Popular Songs and Wrench a Musical Out of Them. Whatever you call it, it operates under the same purpose as trying to fit a donut through a keyhole.
I can see the boardroom meeting now. A bunch of people in suits and leather shoes saying, “You remember that band that had all those great songs? I mean, everyone LOVED those songs! Why don’t we just use those songs in this play? It’ll save so much time because y’know, we don’t have to hire a composer or lyricist because the songs already exist!” Perhaps someone asks what the story will be, and the person at the head of the table waves his hand and says, “Doesn’t matter, people are only here to listen to these songs they already like and be hypnotized by all the lights and dancing and costumes and bright colors. They won’t care what the story is when they hear the music.”
Mamma Mia! is the worst offender and the most insulting excuse for a piece of entertainment I’ve ever witnessed. It is a ridiculous mess of hackneyed dialogue with a makeshift plot that its creators tried to cover up with pastel colored, cotton-candy-scented spray paint that sounds like ABBA. Poor fools, people don’t even know what they’re watching because they just like the songs. (At least American Idiot was a concept album with a singular theme.) It was for this reason that I never went to see Jersey Boys live. I hate jukebox musicals.
Now, Jersey Boys the stage production doesn’t offend the way the aforementioned travesty does since at least it sings the songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons while at the same time telling their story. That’s an easier pill to swallow. Jersey Boys the movie, however, is a pill so bitter you’re at risk of dry heaving.
There is a certain artistry when it comes to live musical theatre, and a good deal of artistry lies in its timing. Pacing and picked-up cues are essential to not just the songs being performed, but also to the dialogue and overall flow of the show. The movie Jersey Boys is so slow-moving and tiresome it’s a wonder Clint Eastwood knows what the word pacing means. The songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons are lively, catchy, up-beat ditties that would make your foot tap even if it were nailed to the ground, and therefore can be an asset in the story’s movement. However this movie doesn’t want to support this music that the original stage production wanted to showcase, but rather wants to bog it down with a wet-blanket of mob connections and intra-band tiffs.
The things that make a movie about the rise and fall of a musical act so interesting are the (duh) peaks and valleys, which are typically musical numbers and plot conflicts, respectively. We want to experience the thrill of the every great performance and similarly cringe when things start to go awry. Jersey Boys shows us we really can’t have one without the other. It is so preoccupied with the egos of would-be mobsters and insurmountable money troubles that the musical performances are secondary and go entirely uncelebrated, in such a way you wonder if Clint Eastwood even wanted to be bothered with them.
In the first big breakthrough of their career, The Four Seasons sing “Sherry” on American Bandstand and it’s treated like they just had a teeth cleaning, when shouldn’t it really be more like a HOLY SHIT YOU GUYS WE DID IT moment? The Wonders ran and screamed through the streets and double parked and kissed a very expensive floor display the first time “That Thing You Do!” played on the radio. All it did was play on the radio. They were pumped to play in Steubenville. They did shots when they got to number ninety-three on the Billboard Top 100. Okay, so they probs didn’t do shots, but regardless, each of those moments were ridiculously exciting and fun to watch and gave the audience the peaks to even out the valleys of the third act. The balance of That Thing You Do! is as great as the one-noted-ness of Jersey Boys is awful.
(Should I even mention that Jersey Boys features a slew of songs and That Thing You Do! essentially features one, and is STILL more interesting? Okay, hyperbole, but unless you’re a huge fan like I am, can you name another song featured in that movie? Didn’t think so.)
There are a hefty number of other things wrong with this movie, all stemming from what seems to be Clint Eastwood’s inattention to detail and subtlety for anything other than the actual real events of the actual Four Seasons that mostly have to do with the North Jersey mob. (I’m rolling my eyes.) I’m convinced that when you’re someone like Clint Eastwood, you don’t listen to anyone else and no one tells you “no.”
“Hey, Clint, shouldn’t we at least try and de-age these actors? I mean, we have a 38-year-old trying to pass for 16 for like, a quarter of the movie.”
“Clint, I’m really concerned about the narrative structure. We keep switching first-person narrators with no real cohesion or flow or purpose and it just makes no sense.”
“I know we can’t find the cinematographer, Clint, but shouldn’t we move the camera around instead of having the actor walk in a circle? It makes the shot more visually interesti—oh, you walked away.”
There are a few moments, and by a few I mean it’s like trying to find individual pieces of glitter in mud, that give Jersey Boys short bouts of acceptableness. There’s a terrific light bulb moment when songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) discovers the title “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” What should have been sickeningly cheesy miraculously worked. There’s one shot of fourth-wall-breaking narrative by bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) where he’s monologuing while playing and moving during a performance, which is rather enjoyable to watch. As far as I’m concerned, Nick’s towel soliloquy is the high point of the movie when it absolutely should not have been. It displayed a liveliness and passion that the rest of the movie completely lacked.
The musical number during the final credits made me want to throw my Coke Zero at the screen. It was upbeat and cheerful and all the things The Four Seasons songs are. I had more fun in those last several minutes (which, BTW, was still sub-par by musical theatre standards) than I did in the entire 134 minutes prior to it.
Oh, and obviously Christopher Walken. Just… Christopher Walken. Yeah.
If only the filmmakers had taken the cheese and the creativity and the energy of those moments (mixed with the playfulness of Christopher Walken) and spread it out throughout the rest of the movie, then perhaps it could have resembled a good piece of film. Instead, Clint Eastwood wanted to make Goodfellas using the story of Frankie Valli and crew, and subsequently sucked all the fun out of the musical theatre genre. Mr. Eastwood, it would have been fine if you wanted to do that. You just shouldn’t have called it Jersey Boys.
Sidenote: I have actually seen Frankie Valli perform live. It was three or four years ago when the man was in his late 70s and someway, somehow those sounds still eminate from his windpipes. It was rather remarkable.