Wednesday, June 25, 2014

'Jersey Boys' And The Modern Movie Musical

Since the end of the golden age of movie musicals (when My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music were finally released as movies) very few movie musicals have garnered either wide critical acclaim or achieved a stellar showing at the box office.
There are, however two notable exceptions: Cabaret in 1972, which won eight Oscars and Chicago in 2002, which won six Oscars including Best Picture.
Interestingly enough, both of these films were adaptations of stage musicals with music and lyrics by the incredible team of John Kander and Fred Ebb. And Chicago was the first movie musical to win a Best Picture Oscar since Oliver! in 1969. That's a span of 33 years. No movie musical has won the top award since.
So now along comes Jersey Boys, the Clint Eastwood directed film adaption of the stage musical of the same name.
And whereas Cabaret and Chicago reinterpreted their original works and reimagined them as movies, Clint Eastwood has decided to play it safe and give us a veritable film version of the stage show, complete in almost every detail. In fact, Eastwood even has the four main characters (The Four Seasons who are the Jersey Boys of the title) talk directly to the audience just as they do on Broadway and in roadshows of the production now playing throughout the world.
But this device doesn't work nearly as effectively in a movie as it does on stage. In fact, it seems awkward and gimmicky.
To be sure, the four principals are all outstanding and, just to increase the movie's theatrical creds, they all come from stage productions of the show, most from the original cast. And all of that great Four Seasons music is still here, including all the wonderful Frankie Valli solo hits. Plus, there's a great feature role performance by Christopher Walken as mob boss Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo. Walken nails this role and his performance just might garner an Oscar nod.
But don't expect Jersey Boys to gain the types of Oscar nominations achieved by Chicago or Cabaret. It's just not in the cards.
We don't experience the same urgency, the same energy, the same sense of knockout drama that we get from the stage production. The boys' fierce desire to succeed, their desperate climb to the top and even their boisterous battles along the way don't pop from the film the way they should. And here's why: These elements are not integrated into the songs and the music. The musical scenes and the non-musical scenes are almost like two separate movies. Either could probably stand alone.
This is a problem with almost any so-called "jukebox" musical that simply incorporates a series of unrelated hit songs. But it's more easily finessed on the stage than in the movies where we need a bigger reason to suspend disbelief when a character simply breaks into song.
Cabaret overcame this obstacle by giving us a show (a cabaret) within the story as the life of the Kit Kat Club reflected on the rise of Nazism in Germany. Chicago also contained show performances within the story but took an even more daring leap by turning the songs into depictions of the thoughts and imaginations of the characters. That's what made it a landmark movie musical.
Eastwood could have chosen a more creative approach to this property but he did not.
Still, the film is marvelously authentic. It's a great recreation of a time and place. And despite its obvious stereotypes, it does show us the underbelly of show business and the struggle of four young men to break away from their hugely inhibiting and often dangerous surroundings.
So, there's still ample reason to see this movie. It's great fun to watch and to listen to. And it resonates that much more because it all really happened.
Since most people have not seen the stage production the potential audience for the film is vast. But even if you've seen the show (and we've seen it twice) it's still great to experience these performances again.

No comments: