Jersey Boys (2014) - DP: Tom Stern

The fun thing about getting to understand greatness is that it necessitates an understanding of failure. Fortunately for all those successes out there, “Jersey Boys” shows us just how mediocre cinematography can be.

I recently had a conversation with a friend about a new movie release. I told her the story was OK, but the cinematography was amazing. She very pointedly responded by saying she doesn’t watch movies for the cinematography. That interaction pretty much hit me over the head with just how invisible the cinematographer’s work is to an average audience member. They usually don’t see how the photography is enhancing the story, externalizing the internal, and coloring their perception of the film. For the most part, that’s a good thing. It’s exactly what a cinematographer wants: to take on control of the aesthetic without distracting from the characters and story. The downside is that people completely lack the tools to discern when the cinematography is failing a film from when it’s supporting a film. They think good cinematography means the image looks pretty. They don’t know it’s also when Gregg Toland achieves extraordinarily deep focus in “Citizen Kane” (1941) or Gordon Willis changes the way we light movies with soft, directional, and ominous top light in “The Godfather” (1972).

The point I’m getting at here, is that Jersey Boys wasn’t a very good movie and part of it is because of the way it was shot, even though people don’t necessarily realize it. On top of that, one of the most egregious mistakes Stern made in this film actually happened after production. The digital grade is becoming more and more a staple in the cinematographic process. Just about every movie goes through a coloring process, except for a few niche films like “The Master” (2012). For whatever reason they decided to pull almost all the color out of the film (and all the life and soul along with it). The entire movie has a desaturated look that makes me feel as welcomed into the world of The Four Seasons as having their front door slammed in my face. The only reason I can think of for doing this is to tone down the horribly offensive hard lighting that is so pervasive throughout. Of course in the classic Hollywood days of black & white photography, DP’s relied on hard lighting for its great contrast, which created layers and depth in the absence of color. I can only imagine that Stern took a look at the footage in all its color and cried himself to sleep when he saw that the film was riddled with ugly shadows everywhere they weren’t needed. Knowing that hard light plays great in black & white, he desaturated the image in a last ditch attempt to bail himself out. I’m not buying it.

One of the more finessed instances of hard light. But still strangely desaturated.

One of the more finessed instances of hard light. But still strangely desaturated.

Let’s also not forget the laughable driving scene over a projected backdrop. It was a great try, but Charles Rosher and Karl Struss did it better in “Sunrise” and they did it in 1927. After thinking about it for quite some time, there really is nothing memorable about how this film was shot. All the scenes felt like they were getting it out of a handbook on how to cover dialogue. Stern never brought anything new to the table. That’s not to say that filmmakers have to reinvent the wheel every time they set out on a film, but nothing here was unique to the story of The Four Seasons. Nothing made me feel like it belonged to this movie, instead it drudged along, uninspired and that’s how the photography can let a film down. Even if you’re an audience member who doesn’t think you’re going to a film for the cinematography it still has a subconscious effect on how you view it. Sometimes you don’t know why you can’t connect to the characters and that’s because you don’t know what to look for. In Jersey Boys, part of it is exactly the thing many people are overlooking: the cinematography.

-Sheldon J.