The Movie Musical Sleeps With the Fishes
By Johnny Pomatto
Having lived in New York for nearly two decades, I’m a lover of musical theater. When a show is truly great, (which admittedly seems to be happening less and less these days), you can’t beat the experience of the live spectacle of a grand production number. In recent years, the big Hollywood musical has seemed all but dead. The success of “Chicago” back in 2002 prompted a boom of film adaptations with very mixed results. For every success there have been numerous disasters, such as “Nine,” “Mama Mia,” “Rock of Ages,” and the last 70 minutes of “Dreamgirls.” If there was hope for one of these adaptations to knock it out of the park, it was going to be the Broadway sensation JERSEY BOYS.
JERSEY BOYS had just about everything going for it. It’s the true story of Frankie Valli and the forming of The Four Seasons, a band that is responsible for some of the most infectiously lovable songs in music history. The story takes place in and around the world of organized crime, inviting plenty of comparisons to films like “Goodfellas.” And the film is directed by Clint Eastwood, a man who is still responsible for more masterpieces than misfires. Sadly this particular film falls into the latter category.
There’s a lot to enjoy during the first half or so of JERSEY BOYS. The story is told individually by three narrators who speak directly to us, not unlike the aforementioned “Goodfellas.” Each narrator, (band members Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio, played by Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, and Erich Bergen respectively) tell very different sides of the story. Their facts and takes are supposed to conflict with one another and give us information that the others omit, but this conceit is mostly done away with and we’re simply left with each telling different sections of the saga. At the center of each story is Frankie Valli, played by the incredible Tony-winning star of the play John Lloyd Young, who has a voice just as good, (if not better) than the real Valli.
The problem is that Eastwood doesn’t know exactly how he wants to tell the story. Despite the beautiful cinematography that mutes the colors like an old photograph, JERSEY BOYS isn’t presented with much nostalgic romanticism. When The Four Seasons aren’t singing, their story is bone dry and painfully slow. Later scenes in the film during the group’s darker downfall go on for what feels like forever. A scene in which DeVito’s debt with a loan shark is discussed seems to take place in real time, as every possible payment plan and option is explored. It was around then when I tried to remember when the last time they sang a damn song was. If we are to continue with the “Goodfellas” comparisons, that movie also took a dark turn in its third act, but it never sacrificed the energy and entertainment that had preceded it.
During the end credits of the film, the group performs a medley of their classic songs and for the first time we are dropped into a kind of fantasy world, musical number, where characters are dancing down a soundstage street. It feels incredibly corny and out of place, but it’s interesting to see what the other end of the spectrum of this film looks like. If the dry, dramatic realism doesn’t work, and if the sparkly, dreamlike dance number doesn’t work, then what could the tone of this film possibly have been? Nobody wanted this film to work more than me, and it’s not without its charms. Anytime the boys start to sing, the film feels truly magical. Young gives what could have been an Oscar-worthy performance if it had only been featured in a better film. And Christopher Walken, looking frail, gentle, and soft spoken, is wonderful as a kind crime boss who loves Frankie’s voice.
What hope is there for the future of musical films? We have a modern adaptation of “Annie” ahead of us, which actually looks like an adorable guilty pleasure. We also have Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods,” which I’m extremely pessimistic about considering that it’s directed by Rob Marshall. I know. “Chicago” was a great movie, but it’s also a dance heavy musical. Marshall is a great choreographer but when it comes to directing films, he’s strictly “point and shoot.” Considering the play is incredibly theatrical and numerous changes will have to be made for its translation to film, I can only assume “Woods” will be as disappointing as Marshall’s unwatchable “Nine.”
Meanwhile, original and unconventional movie musicals have never been more popular. One need not look further than films like “Frozen” or “Pitch Perfect” to see that audiences still want to see a story that erupts in song. Last week I went to see Neil Patrick Harris in “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” on Broadway and was reminded that when John Cameron Mitchell adapted his show to film he was able to take his very presentational, concert style musical (not unlike JERSEY BOYS) and reshape it into beautiful cinematic storytelling. It’s not an impossible feat, and while Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s screenplay for JERSEY BOYS doesn’t do the film many favors, there is a fantastic story trapped inside it, just singing to get out. I just worry that we’re raising a generation of film directors who are so out of touch with the classic musical that if given the chance, they won’t even begin to know how to make one.
Hear more of Johnny Pomatto’s reviews on his podcast MOVIES AND FILMS WITH JOHNNY AND FRIENDS available on iTunes
Questions? Comments! Feel free to connect with guest blogger Johnny Pomatto on: