[19 June 2014]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Is it a musical or a biopic? The standard definition for the former is a show or storyline which sees songs seamlessly merged with the dialogue. The typical requirements of the latter are an interesting story and some connection to real life events. Few properties have successfully merged both, though many consider the Broadway smash Jersey Boys as an excellent example of a behind the scenes look at the making (and breaking) of the famed Four Seasons pop act, complete with jovial jukebox designs regarding the showtunes.
Indeed, the group’s Hall of Fame sound and chart topping hits become part of the show, highlighting the ups and downs that came with being a pre/post Beatlemania phenomenon.
Yet in the film version, directed by Clint Eastwood, such designs are tossed by the wayside. In their place is the same rags to riches success story measured out in blind ambition, constant infighting, personal secrets, and limited dramatic gravitas. It’s not a mistake. It’s a deliberate tactic. Eastwood, clearly uncertain of the original show’s “seasonal” set-up (each of the four main band members would take a section, narrating the rise, Tommy Devito, the success, Bob Gaudio, the various troubles, Nick Massi, and the struggle to survive the breakup, Frankie Valli), decided to simply make a period piece with mob ties, the better to highlight the human side of the saga. By doing so, however, he undermined the very reasons this story, and these songs, continue to compel.
Jersey Boys isn’t the first musical biopic to sacrifice the sonic substance for something less meaningful. Recent efforts like Ray and Walk the Line also feature more backstage backstabbing than actual inspiration. It’s the main flaw in almost all such showcases.
The reason we are drawn to a particular group or artist in the first place is their music. We want to know what inspired The Beatles to come together, sure, but isn’t the main curiosity how they wrote those amazing songs? While the creative process is often impossible to capture on film, some have found successful ways (Barton Fink, for example) to illustrate the concept—at least, allegorically.
What does Jersey Boys give us for an inspiration explanation? Billy Wilder’s acerbic satire Ace in the Hole, and the moment when Kirk Douglas “slaps” some sense into Jan Sterling, with Bob Crewe’s response to the group’s fears being…“big girls don’t cry.”
Cue cinematic light bulb.
As for other examples in the film…well, there really aren’t any. “Sherry” is seen as a last second knock-off, a way of convincing star producer Bob Crewe to finally record the act. “Dawn”? “Walk Like a Man”? “Ragdoll”” Even the pop standard “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” are all treated like rogue red herrings. A nameless record exec even writes it off as a “failed” art experiment that’s unreleaseable.
Of course, almost anyone in today’s audience can hum the tune, and when the Frankie Valli character belts out the lyrics toward the end of the film, the song’s power is palpable. There are inferences—“My Eyes Adored You” could have been about the singer’s relationship with his troubled daughter—but that’s about it. Gaudio is tagged as “genius”, the hits are handled in a bland mid-movie montage, and the band’s huge success is presented as typical teen pandemonium.
In fact, about the only thing we learn about the Four Season’s music here is that a mobster named Gyp DeCarlo seemed to like it, and that Joe Pesci (yes - that Joe Pesci) played a small role in getting Gaudio in the group. Everything else is Tommy DeVito’s debts to loan sharks, his glorified Goodfella wannabe personality, and Valli’s noble defense of the clearly flawed man.
Perhaps the most stunning development comes as the band disintegrates. The group learns that Devito owes more than $650,000 in debts that he cannot pay. Valli agrees to take on the debts, which quickly rise to nearly a million. While everyone calls him crazy, he merely recites his Jersey ‘hood credo and gets on with the touring. Even as his own family falls apart, Valli makes it clear he will not see DeVito undermined by his own flaws.
Is it an intriguing turn of events? Yes. Does it make Jersey Boys a better film? No. In fact, it reduces the music even further, turning it into nothing more than a way for our singer to help his buddy out. Again, no real passion for the power to create such musical magic, just cogs in a plot machine that lumbers along like a drunken conventioneer.
It’s also far from indicative of the whole “jukebox” ideal. Mamma Mia took great pains to put a plot together along with ABBA’s polished pop, and did a fine job of incorporation in the process. Rock of Ages did something similar, using hair metal as a means of mocking the glitz and sham glamour of the era while telling a traditional 42 Street style story.
Here, since we have to contend with the Four Seasons rise and fall, the musical made the tunes reflect the issues. Eastwood merely puts them in, pell-mell, not really caring about context.
Naturally, none of this addresses the real problem: the concept of creativity. Jersey Boys may have been fine for a tourist trade eager to see a stage show on the Great White Way without having to put much effort into some aesthetic appreciation, but film flows differently. Every pause is a place where something solid should happen, there’s no room for post-performance applause or ovations. In fact, on celluloid, Jersey Boys loses its luster because Eastwood chooses to focus on things—the neighborhood, the mob connections—that have very little to do with the music. The story behind “Ragdoll” is heartbreaking. We never even hear it here. Treat the tunes as a necessary afterthought and you no longer have a traditional song and dance showcase.
Granted, Jersey Boys is not your standard musical. The group’s Hall of Fame sound and material shouldn’t, however, be slighted.