The jukebox musical never sounded like an obvious candidate for translation to film. Raucous singalongs that invite audiences to engage communally, these peculiar shows are inherently theatrical experiences. And yet, Mamma Mia! became one of the breakout hits of the century. Who knows? Maybe movie audiences have been yearning to break into song for the last century.
Jersey Boys was always going to be a harder sell than the Abba film. Everyone knows a few tunes by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Sherry, Walk Like a Man, Big Girls Don't Cry) but, like so many acts that emerged in the years between Elvis's enlistment and the British invasion, the vocal group now seem a tad old-fashioned. You're appealing to the upper reaches of the baby-boomer demographic here.
Clint Eastwood's strategy is to de-jukebox the stage show and turn it into a more conventional rise-fall-and-rise-again rock'n'roll biopic. If this tale of Italian-Americans ducking and diving counts as a musical, then so does GoodFellas. (Come to think of it, Joe Pesci, a friend of the teenage Valli, appears as a character in Jersey Boys.)
By golly, there is some old-school, clunky film-making going on here. Cherish the moment at which, stuck for a second hit, the boys watch Kirk Douglas wallop Jan Sterling in Billy Wilder's Ace in the Hole. Somebody suggests Sterling is about to cry. "No, big girls don't cry!" his colleague replies. Hmm! We might have something there.
This would count as the most outrageous "light-bulb" moment were there not a literal example when, stuck for a name, the band catches sight of a neon sign advertising "The Four Seasons" bowling alley. It's as if Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story never happened.
Still, you couldn't say that Jersey Boys isn't fun. Eastwood may not have the most conspicuous authorial voice, but he's always known how to tell a cracking story. This is the one about the blue-collar Italian kids growing up in the midst of criminality, who escape the old neighbourhood through hard work and natural talent.
Each member of quartet is gifted a clearly defined personality trait. Frankie (John Llloyd Young) is the wide-eyed dreamer. Mick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is the uncomplaining passenger. Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) is the more cultured, less hidebound songwriter. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is the wise guy whose nefarious dealings threaten to ruin the band on more than one occasion.
Moving at a pace one might generously describe as leisurely, Jersey Boys walks us through the band's long apprenticeship and then speeds sickeningly through the inevitable bankruptcies, arguments and substance abuse that come with pop success. "Why does mommy always go to sleep on the couch after drinking her medicine?" Frankie's daughter really does ask.
It's enjoyable, undemanding stuff. Christopher Walken, though hardly convincing as an Italian, has fun as the local godfather. Piazza (the only one of the four leads not to have sung in the stage show) grabs his opportunity to turn Tommy into the sort of charismatic heel that plagues every schoolroom and prison yard.
However, as is occasionally the case with Eastwood, there is too often a sense of all involved going through the motions. Sometimes it looks as of they’re barely trying: one appalling back-projection during a driving sequence would barely have passed muster in a 1960s sitcom.
Clint really needed to try a bit harder when dealing with material that no longer has much of a natural constituency. Such is the proliferation of Abba fans that Mamma Mia! only needed to be as good as it was. No hoards of Four Seasons maniacs are going to make this modest entertainment into a hit. A shame. It's heart is in the right place.