Clint Eastwood is known as a filmmaker with an unfussy, straight-down-the-middle approach—the last bastion of the old-fashioned studio craftsmanship he so admired as a working actor. Sometimes his version of craft gets tagged as Oscar bait, but mostly because so few big-studio movies have any interest in adult-minded drama (and also because several of his movies have been nominated for and/or won Oscars). His CV for the past few decades is eclectic, bumping through genre revisionism (Unforgiven; A Perfect World); operatic sociology (Mystic River), an ambitious two-sided World War II double feature (Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima), some decidedly non-ambitious pulp (Space Cowboys; Blood Work), historical dramas (J. Edgar) and procedurals (Changeling), an old-fashioned sports weepie (Million Dollar Baby), and more, at a pace of around a movie a year. Now, with Jersey Boys, Eastwood has made a musical, of sorts—and this adaptation of the hit Broadway show foregrounds the fact that Eastwood’s movies, for all of their old-fashioned classicism, are also kind of strange.
At first glance, Jersey Boys looks conventional, maybe even more so than its stage-show predecessor: because the musical actually follows the career of the Four Seasons (rather than applying their songs to a new story, Mamma Mia-style), the simplest conversion to film turns the live song recreations into the kind of brief performance breaks almost all pop-music biopics employ. Sidelining the overt showmanship puts Eastwood back in his comfort zone: a story set in the past, built around historically oriented anecdotes of a bygone era, shot in his signature color-drained Tom Stern cinematography.
But while I haven’t seen the stage show, I can recognize the bones of modern Broadway structure when I see them (Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, authors of the musical’s book, adapted their own work for the film). In the first half, a bunch of characters are introduced to bring their struggles together in harmony while potential conflict looms in the background. In the more diffuse second half, those conflicts scatter the characters apart. Then, later, they all get back together for a final number, shrugging off the sad stuff that came before. Rise, fall, scatter, reunite, shrug it off and sum it up: isn’t that kinda-sorta what happens in Rent?
It seems like an easy (if wholly uninspired) fit for a musical biopic, too, but even with a 135-minute running time, the movie spreads itself thin trying to cover the four core band members and their various relationships. Big Broadway productions often use their show-stopping musical performances as compensation for this thinness; Jersey Boys, by its odd hybrid design, doesn’t have this luxury. Eastwood lets the classic early-rock songs play — if not always in full, at least with characteristic patience—but they rarely jump off the screen. He glides his camera elegantly, sometimes even indulging in actual whims like a lovely pan up the Brill Building that quickly spies on all of the music labels and songwriters through the windows, but he doesn’t move to a rock-and-roll beat (as Llewyn Davis would say: Clint is not a swinger). (But yeah, Space Cowboys was pretty on the beat.)
Martin Scorsese would have been a too-easy choice for this material, injecting the roughness of Jersey into the power of early rock music; the founder of the band, thuggish Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), certainly cuts a figure that would make sense in Scorsese World. It didn’t need to be the real thing; any number of filmmakers with that electricity — someone with a love of this time, place, and music, rather than just a passing interest — could have made the grittier, livelier jukebox musical this one hints at. Eastwood doesn’t drop the ball completely; there’s a great restless energy in the scene where the camera circles around a recording studio as the band’s primary songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) tries to sell industry folks on “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” which would become a huge hit for frontman Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who, like several of the cast members, played the role on stage, too). And in lieu of Scorsese-style voiceover, he lets a few characters talk to the camera. These asides are obviously from the show, and deeply Broadway; they’re also moments where the movie comes alive. There’s something conspiratorial in the way that Nick Massi (Michel Lomenda), well aware of his role as the most expendable of the Four, turns away from the band’s Ed Sullivan performance to confide in the audience about the seeds of discontent planted years earlier.
As good as the stage actors are, though, the movie could have used more along the lines of Christopher Walken, who has a small role as a friendly neighborhood goombah. It’s understandably not a singing/dancing part, but casting him in a sorta-musical without allowing him to dance or sing (save a curtain-call end-credits number) is very much in line with how Eastwood assembles the rest of the movie: it’s a logical decision that manages to feel a little perverse.
Another predictable, maybe fitting, but still disappointing decision: shooting Jersey Boys in Eastwood’s preferred flashback-y tones. His movies have long been darkish or at least overcast affairs—Million Dollar Baby in particular makes evocative use of shadowy interiors, and the browns and grays that make his movies look like a missing link between black-and-white and sepia make sense for a staid chronicle of a bygone war like Flags of Our Fathers. Jersey Boys is period, too, but it doesn’t make much use of its color drainage beyond establishing its location in the Eastwood Past.
Eastwood’s plainspoken, unadorned style defuses some of the bombast you might expect from either of the movie’s genres, but that strategy works best when applied to a simple story like Million Dollar Baby (grizzled old trainer helps young lady boxer) or the underrated A Perfect World (troubled man kidnaps kid, is pursued by lawman). Jersey Boys is trickier than it looks: it has a simple outline (the rise and dissipation of a rock band) with a complex network of characters. Which is not to say all of the characters have complexity: women in the movie are punchlines for the boys’ bad behavior, or nags — Frankie’s first wife hits shrieking indignation almost parodic speed (even when the movie doubles back to fill in some past gaps, she’s just a boozy wreck).
Some directors find greatness in a consistent style; there is obvious pleasure (for some, anyway) in the watching a film by Wes Anderson or Brian De Palma enact stylistic rituals and apply them to new material. But Eastwood’s throwback style only sometimes complements the movies he chooses to make, and only allows for a mild, reserved form of cinematic high (it may be a byproduct of making a laconic, straight-shooting Eastwood movie without Eastwood; he stars in many of his best films). Watching him adapt Broadway is a fascinating exercise, but it’s not much fun. Early in the Four Seasons recording process, a producer tells the band: “I’m hearing it in sky blue, you’re giving me brown.” Eastwood seems to take that as a marching order.