based on Jersey Boys
by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
2014 • 136 minutes • Warner Brothers Pictures
In our culture, musical theater, as an art form, is coded as feminine. This is due to the form’s pointed embrace of artificiality, which is so often conflated with femininity. In reality, musical theater doesn’t divide along gender or sexuality lines so easily—in my Georgia high school, everybody got involved with the spring musical. But the stereotype remains, to the point that even Camp, a film celebrating musical theater with a diverse cast, sees all the male-attracted teens go dizzy when an actual straight boy turns up.
In response, producers have begun to highlight certain musicals as guys’ musicals or musicals you can bring your boyfriend to. My beloved Rock of Ages pitches itself quite hard in that direction, what with the strippers, concert atmosphere, and stunt casting, and so does the mildly more family friendly Jersey Boys, which tells the true stories behind the success of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. In fact, both musicals are jukebox musicals that play with the fourth wall, luring in non-theater goers with songs they already love and constantly puncturing the supposed artificiality of stagecraft by talking to the audience. (Both musicals’ abuse of the fourth wall peak memorably: the script is produced in Rock of Ages and the stage is visually flipped in Jersey Boys.)
But taking a musical that’s already proved itself to have mass market appeal to the silver screen requires maneuvering around modern Hollywood’s usual apathy for the form. It’s currently on an upswing, with the success of Les Misérables and a big screen adaptation of Into the Woods hitting theaters this Christmas, but the former is considered one of the best musicals of all time and the latter is being produced by Disney, currently the most dependable producer of film musicals in the business. Now try to appeal to people who normally wouldn’t go see a movie musical on top of that. What do you do?
Well, if you’re making Jersey Boys, you hire Clint Eastwood to direct, you desaturate the palette, and you compress the story. True, this makes it palatable to anyone who thinks characters bursting out into song is silly, but it also removes the high emotions, glossy sheen, and sheer joy that made the musical such a fun, arresting experience. As an adaptation, Jersey Boys muffles its source material.
Most damningly, it changes the story’s genre. Chicago softened itself for its film debut by positing that Roxie dreamed up the musical numbers. Jersey Boys takes it a step farther and eliminates any non-diegetic instances of music (except for a brief snatch of “Fallen Angel,” played over a funeral), turning into a traditional biopic. There’s nothing wrong with such a large leap of adaptation, but because Jersey Boys’ heart lies so much in linking this music to its creators’ lives, much of the emotional complexity evaporates. It certainly doesn’t help that the pace is breakneck, often forgetting to remind us that characters are still together, that Frankie likes to cheat on his wife, how much time has passed, or what bet did Bob Gaudio lose for him to be sporting that goatee.
But no matter how curtailed and compressed, the musical performances still soar. This is largely because John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for his portrayal of Frankie Valli on Broadway, reprises his role on the big screen. It’s a no-brainer choice, especially since even casting Frankie for the stage show requires a “Frankie Camp” for hopefuls. But Young played the role for two years, giving his Frankie a lived-in feeling that makes him oddly compelling. And, of course, his voice is superb, a welcome relief from the laxer standards of film musicals. Erich Bergen’s Bob Gaudio is also nicely rounded, from being the young innocent of the group to a devoted friend of Frankie’s, but Vincent Piazza’s Tommy, who opens the film, is slightly more compelling. But they can’t keep the film afloat.
At least, until the film’s credits. After we close on the Four Seasons in 1990, the quartet appears in their sixties finery with the entire ensemble, performing “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” with an almost palpable sense of relief that rivals the audience’s. It’s big, it’s bright, it’s infectious—and it embraces artificiality by ending on a shot or two of the cast standing perfectly still, reminding the audience that these are all just players on the stage. The credits are the best and worst thing about this film, showing us what might have been had the film really embraced its roots instead of shuffling them awkwardly to the side. I’ll definitely watch the credits again, but I’m not so sure I want to sit through the film to earn them.
I saw this film in theaters.