Thursday, July 31, 2014

Jersey Boys (2014)

Clint Eastwood's Jersey Boys: From Broadway Blockbuster to Boilerplate Biopic

The road from stage to screen is almost always paved with good, although still commercial, intentions. Cinema, with its countless manners of reaching to an audience, will always be the best medium to reach the masses. Good intentions notwithstanding, films based on stage plays, more specifically musicales, are often riddled with issues on adaptation.

Directors tasked to adapt musicales to movies are often faced with the dilemma of translating elements specific to the stage to cinematic language, without sacrificing the charms that made the original material successful and popular enough to be optioned. Certain decisions often lead to disastrous results.

Chris Columbus’ take on Jonathan Larson’s Rent (2005) had the Harry Potter-director’s trademark Hollywood gloss and naiveté bastardize the rare bleakness of the material. Joel Schumacher’s version of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s The Phantom of the Opera (2004) concentrated more on the original play’s kitsch and aplomb rather than its world-famous musicality.

Clint Eastwood, in adapting Tony Award-winning Jersey Boys, had the good sense of understanding that the material he is faced with has all the makings of the traditional Hollywood biopic. Its being a musicale is nothing more than a stunt for better Broadway showmanship. Eastwood, whose films are often peppered with stirring heft, is clearly more interested in the story of Frankie Valli and his crew, which has themes and motivations that are right along his alley.

The narrative arc is all too familiar. Frankie, played by John Lloyd Young who is reprising the role from the musicale’s debut in Broadway, is a barber’s assistant with a uniquely beautiful shrill singing voice. With pals Tommy de Vito and Nick Massi, played by Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda respectively, Frankie spends most of his free time either breaking the law or breaking ladies’ hearts with his distinctive crooning.

It is only when composer Bob Gaudio, played by Erich Bergen, came into the group that things start to pick up for the group. The Four Seasons is then formed. They get the recording contract they aspired for, with a collection of hits under their belt. However, as with most American rags-to-riches, obscurity-to-fame tales, everything is undone by clashing egos and inevitable vices.

The theater elements of the source material that remain, like the characters breaking the fourth wall to narrate their internal struggles or the upbeat curtain call where close-ups of the actors replace individual bows, serve the purpose of reminding the audience of the film’s roots. They also reveal that very rare opportunity where Eastwood, rigid and straightforward to a fault, attempts at humor and experimentation.

Eastwood, who is famous first as an actor before delving into directing with Play Misty With Me (1971), is in fact also a very capable musician. He composed the scores for most of his recent films, like Mystic River (2003), Million Dollar Baby (2004) and Flags of Our Fathers (2006). In all of his films, music, although scarce and subtle, is always impeccably placed to draw out the emotions he requires from his viewers.

It is no different with Jersey Boys. Although Eastwood mostly does away with the musicale’s need to be constantly in a singsong state, he still manages to incorporate to make essential the various songs of the Four Seasons and Franki Valli in either moving the narrative or adding emotional weight to the scenes. A lot of the film’s dull intervals are salvaged with music.

Forget Broadway for a couple of hours. Let Eastwood do what he’s best at doing, which is to lace familiar stories with a certain kind of elegance that Hollywood has forgotten nowadays. Eastwood’s decision to filter out most of the theater elements from the material, all for the sake of being conventionally cinematic, sort of pays off.

Jersey Boys is a safe endeavor. It fulfils its intent of telling the musicale’s story to a much wider audience, although obviously with less pageantry and gaiety. That said, Jersey Boys suffers from too much earnestness, too much gravity, and too little irreverence, the same ailments that drive most biopics about musicians to eventual obscurity. Eastwood, without the benefit of the bells and whistles most musicales provide, seems to be powerless to the allure of churning out just another boilerplate drama.

(First published in Rappler.)

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