Just in case you haven’t noticed, the Hollywood film musical is bordering on comatose right now. The genre’s last legitimate, high-profile, live-action incarnation was Tom Hooper Les Misérables, which, despite of its multiple Oscar nominations, remains a loud, bloated, over-worked parade of swollen lungs and constipated faces. And those that preceded it – namely Rock of Ages, Burlesque, Nine, Mamma Mia! – are all ungainly misfires, thudding bores at their worst. So it seems that what the business really needs is somebody with a stellar panache and creative muscle to pull the genre from the dumps, and Hollywood responds by picking up a Broadway, Tony-bothering jukebox musical hit and hires the unlikeliest director of them all – Clint Eastwood.
The man known for his gruff, unceremonious, straight-talkin’ cowboy persona isn’t exactly apropos to the sashaying musical genre (although he starred in Paint Your Wagon circa 1969, the only musical gig in his entire career that turned out to be a veritable cockamamie), but who knows? Every director’s bound to have a musical in CV one way or another. If Chris Columbus could pull it off, why not good old Clint, right? He hasn’t produced a solid output since 2008’s Gran Torino – Invictus, Hereafter and J. Edgar are films you could predict in your sleep – and the Grand American Musical might just draw out those hitherto unseen chops from Eastwood.
So – big, sanguine smiles all around as you sit through 134-minutes of Jersey Boys, as you anticipate eagerly for those feisty Eastwood chops to emerge from the occasionally toe-tapping, harmonic show tunes. Genteel smiles that gradually fade into bitter realisation as Eastwood the Director fails to make a stamp right through its closing credits. They might as well take out the name ‘Clint Eastwood’, replace it with any gun-for-hire director in Hollywood and they’ll end up with the same mechanical product free from a singular artist’s vision. From first frame to last, it acknowledges the fact that the musical genre is, quite frankly, showbiz business – so formulas are adhered to, quickly establishing denominators that appeal to the widest audience spectrum imaginable. That is why Jersey Boys, despite of its era-specific motifs and milieu, looks and feels like every other musical you’ve ever seen because narratively, its rise-and-fall-and-comeback dynamics is something you can slap on to every other boyband biopics. Which renders the entire film somewhat flat and less-than-enervating, despite Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons’ place in music history.
It also doesn’t help that the fourth-wall-breaking narrative device feels like it’s ripping off Martin Scorcese’s GoodFellas, right down to its gangster staples and Vincent Piazza’s Tommy DeVito, a swaggering caricature of the wise-cracking Robert De Niro-type (frequently effective, yet derivative nonetheless). There’s a good hour of spaghetti-slurping Italian mob movie conventions before Jersey Boys get to the music, only to find that there is nothing really much new to say about this band’s formation and eventual breakdown – even domestic drama is thrown in, for good measure. The last hour, particularly, is wading through Dreamgirls turf, albeit with four falsetto-warbling white guys. Frankie (a nondescript performance by John Lloyd Young, whose formidably high-pitched lead vocals only underscores the emotional range of his acting, which is no better than that of a teaspoon) and Tommy fight and bicker like girls, break up and then eventually reunite in a last-minute encore just because, well, Hollywood. But this isn’t Jersey Boys ultimate failing – what this film monumentally lacks is a political and socio-historical context that the 1960’s was rife of. It’s as if Eastwood consciously ignores all that rich, riotous complexity that could have given The Four Seasons worth their salt, and pines for a tasteless, inconsequential retro-kitsch pastiche, complete with an ill-judged Rock and Roll Fame finale featuring the portfolio of the movie industry’s worst make-up artist. Our four whippersnappers turn up looking facially grafted for the morgue – a fitting visual metaphor that seals the coffin lid to the musical genre shut. For the time being, you’re better off going home and play the blues.