Comparing the Jersey Boys Film to the Musical

It’s not hard to see how Clint Eastwood could be seduced into directing a film adaptation of the buoyant stage musical “Jersey Boys.” The Tony Award-winning history of 1960s pop legends Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons hits the musical theatre trifecta — it’s an incredible true story told by memorable characters performing iconic songs.

The show’s most rare quality, its tough-guy energy, must appeal to a guy like Eastwood. Conventional wisdom says an offer to adapt the show for film would be an offer he couldn’t refuse.

Would that he had. The wildly popular “Jersey Boys” opened in 2005 to acclaim and continues to run on Broadway and tour, but even time-tested material won’t guarantee a bulletproof transition from page or stage to screen, or vice versa.

The best adaptations transform the original work into a piece of art that stands on its own merits, honoring its parent sources but equally worthy in its new form. Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” does not.

When adaptations work, they really work. Take the 2001 Reese Witherspoon film “Legally Blonde,” a welterweight comedy salvaged by the knuckled-down charms of its star, which writers Laurence O’Keefe and Nell Benjamin then transform into an infectious glitter bomb of a musical that dresses up great truths about ambition and desire in hot pink heels. Or compare the cinematography in the movie “War Horse,” itself an adaptation of the book, to the play’s impressive puppetry. One story, two distinct vocabularies.

Sometimes when a musical adaptation fails it’s the fault of the story, the music, or a tragic mix of both. The musical treatment of the 1990 Patrick Swayze/Demi Moore romantic vehicle “Ghost,” for example, is a forgettable exercise in leaning on excessive video effects in hopes the audience will forgive the silly story and maudlin songs.

The failure of the “Jersey Boys” film, which is showing in Louisville, isn’t in the story. The tale of four young men from a rough neighborhood who beat the odds and end up defining an era of pop music is unique, authentic and human. And it’s not just a Hall of Fame success story, either — there’s enough sorrow and loss in their lives to give the show emotional texture and depth.

Frankie (John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony for it) is an innocent kid with a singular voice taken under the sleazy, leather-clad wing of neighborhood bandleader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza of Boardwalk Empire), a budding goon working for mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (the always delightful Christopher Walken). Tommy packs just enough of a negative ratio of brains to swagger to keep himself and his friends in trouble.

They’re joined by stoic bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and, finally, genius songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), and with prescient producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) and some loan-sharked seed money, they release some of the most enduring pop songs of the decade. Debts and personality conflicts tear them apart, but the music and the equal partnership between Gaudio and Valli, famously sealed with a handshake, endures.

Writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice tell the story well on stage, using the group’s internal tensions to their advantage by quartering the narration so that each guy gets to tell his side. Each character is like a favorite uncle telling you a story that might not be exactly 100 percent true, for the hundredth time — oh, but it’s such a fun story, and he tells it so well.

And there’s no big issue with the music here, either. Unlike many jukebox musicals, the songs are authentically native to the story and woven tightly into our cultural DNA. “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” are certifiable classics, and the moment in the second half of Act I when the desperate group belts out their own trifecta of career-making hits, one right after another, is genuinely exciting. You can’t work from a better catalog for a vocal quartet.

Sometimes an adaptation team doesn’t honor the original source, and their wild liberties derail an otherwise solid bet. But the experienced and talented Brickman and Elice wrote this screenplay, and Valli and Gaudio are executive producers of the film. They had all the permission in the world to go wild, but this adaptation doesn’t take liberties, and that’s a problem.

The film approaches the story pretty much as it would be performed on stage, no more and no less, and so much of the show’s live energy is flattened on screen with no significant original touches to replace it.

Eastwood and company stubbornly resist using a cinematic language to re-imagine the story, clinging to telling the story the way it’s always been done. There are no inspiring only-on-film shots, like the famous walk through the kitchen scene in “Goodfellas,” not for lack of raw material or opportunity.

Surely Eastwood knows his way around a montage, but you wouldn’t know it from the film’s tedious performance scenes, which destroy any pleasure of the songs by insisting they play out in their entirety. Dialogue that works on a large stage lacks subtlety this close to a camera.

And talk about missed opportunities — Christopher Walken playing a benevolent crime lord without so much as an interstitial soft-shoe to show off his singular moves.

The page/stage/screen adaptation cycle isn’t going to fall out of fashion any time soon (when is “Pretty Woman: The Musical” opening again?) because it’s easier to sell us a story we already know. But an adaptation that offers no unique lens or new delights is a pointless and frustrating enterprise. If the film is the only opportunity to see the Four Seasons’ story, it might be worth the time, though I don’t believe it was worth Eastwood’s to reproduce this show on film. Given the option, go straight to the original source instead.

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