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'Jersey Boys': Film Review

2:00 AM PDT 6/15/2014 by Todd McCarthy

The Bottom Line

A stage smash finds extra dimensions on film. 

Opens

June 20 (In Los Angeles Film Festival, closing night.)

Director

Clint Eastwood

 

Clint Eastwood adapts the stage story of working-class street guys who made it big but never could entirely surmount their personal limitations.

A dash of showbiz pizzazz has been lost but some welcome emotional depth has been gained in the big-screen version of the still-thriving theatrical smash Jersey Boys. Approaching its 10th year on Broadway, the highly entertaining account of the checkered career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is currently the 13th longest-running show in Broadway history and continues to flourish on tour. The film’s basic fidelity to its source, along with the music’s continuing appeal, suggests solid prospects among mainstream audiences for this story of working-class street guys who made it big but never could entirely surmount their personal limitations. Still, commercial uncertainties attach to the potential interest of young viewers unfamiliar with the band and musical milieu of a half-century ago, as well as in foreign-language markets.

Creatively, the big question here is how the seemingly odd matchup of Jersey Boys and director Clint Eastwood worked out. As has been widely noted, there’s perhaps no one less Joisey than West Coast jazz aficionado Eastwood, and suspicion has also surrounded the great old pro’s feel for Broadway musical tropes as well as his tendency toward deliberate pacing.

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But while his work may lack the snap and precision of a Bob Fosse, not to mention the dynamic cutting of directors of the music video generation, it must be recalled that Eastwood has always displayed an enduring affinity for American popular music, an interest expressed in his music scene-oriented features (Honkytonk Man and Bird, not to mention his still-unrealized remake of A Star Is Born), the many music-based documentaries he has produced and the scores he has written for seven of his films.

Less tangible but more crucial is the director’s feel for the struggle, the long road that must often be traversed to achieve show business success, the price that must often be paid. Far more than in the stage show, which acknowledges the hardships but always cuts quickly back to fun stuff, there is stress on how being on the road away from mates and kids inevitably takes a heavy toll, and on the considerable cost of a determined commitment to success in the arts. While this is hardly banner news, its highlighting enriches the material emotionally and dramatically, providing a bracing dose of melancholy before the final musical surge. Like The Four Seasons, Eastwood persevered through ups and downs during the 1950s and into the early 1960s; that he's simpatico with their personal and professional travails is evident and adds heft to the film.

Jersey Boys may be a jukebox musical, but it’s a jukebox musical with a good book as well as a raft of songs that remain as infectious as they were five decades back. For the film, the show’s original book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have retained their Rashomon-style structure of offering different points of view on events by shifting the narrative voice from one bandmember to another. Eastwood has smoothly incorporated the direct-address technique to the film, something mainstream audiences might now accept more easily than before in the wake of House of Cards.

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Something else the film gets away with is having a 38-year-old actor play Frankie Valli as a 16-year-old. John Lloyd Young originated the role on Broadway in 2005 and, while other actor-singers have convincingly re-created Valli’s dynamic falsetto vocal tones onstage, Young demonstrated an indelible knack for evoking the original’s sound in his Tony Award-winning performance that no one else cold top. As little Francesco Castelluccio, the future star grows up in working-class Belleville with the pope and Frank Sinatra staring down from mantelpiece photos and pals that seem far more likely to wind up as made men than as showbiz luminaries, even if one of the more eager of them was the real-life Joe Pesci, a crucial supporting character here.

For a while, it’s sort of “American Graffiti Meets Mean Streets,” with Frankie and some sidewalk pals, notably good-looking small-time con Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), pulling pranks and an amusingly stupid botched robbery in a neighborhood reigned over by benevolent godfather-type Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (a smooth Christopher Walken); amusingly the name of Pesci’s character in GoodFellas is Tommy DeVitto. It’s 1951, the American pop scene is at its most syrupy and the musical horizons of Frankie, Tommy and their momentary cohorts are limited to tacky lounges and clubs.

Where Joe Pesci figures is in introducing the boys to Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a straight-arrow, comparatively clean-cut kid who, at 15, has already written one national hit (the immortal “Short Shorts”) for his group the Royal Teens. Proud, hotheaded Tommy resists, but Bob’s amazingly facile songwriting skills, combined with the recording savvy of producer and sometime music co-writer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), put the newly christened The Four Seasons (formerly The Four Lovers) in the groove for massive success.

Like the show, the film bounces through the pre-fame exposition in agreeable, surfacy way typical of Broadway musicals, establishing the essentials of Frankie’s talent and earnestness, Tommy’s short-tempered enthusiasm and recklessness and a feeling that something’s coming and it’s gonna be good. And, sure enough, at the halfway point, once bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) completes the band and Crewe takes the reins, the floodgates open and the hits just keep on coming: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” were all No. 1 hits in 1962-63 and the roll continued with “Rag Doll,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “Let’s Hang On” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” among others.

But the silver lining of success hides dark and turbulent clouds beneath; unbeknownst to the others, Tommy, who doubles as the band’s manager, sinks deeply into debt to the mob, requiring the eventual involvement of Gyp and Herculean labors by Frankie to extricate them, while the latter’s near-constant absence from home fosters great guilt over tragic family events.

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Still, as per the norm for musicals, there’s nearly always an uptick after disappointment and that’s easily found in The Four Seasons’ catalog. The continuing durability of these songs and Valli’s uniquely expressive high voice are the biggest reasons for the stage show’s great success. Very few other American pop groups with roots in the pre-British Invasion period remain as listenable today as The Four Seasons and this, combined with the GoodFellas-lite backdrop, give Jersey Boys, both onstage and onscreen, all the juice it needs.

But if the ultimate aim of the theatrical version, which began life at San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse in 2004 and was fine-tuned and re-cast before hitting Broadway, was to get the audience on its feet for the final feel-good medley, Eastwood goes for a more mixed mood, combining the joy of the music with what Valli, in particular, lost and could never regain.

Rather than lip-synching to pre-recorded tracks, the performers all sang during filming to live behind-the-scenes musical accompaniment in the interest of maximum spontaneity and credibility. Both musically and dramatically, all four actors playing bandmembers register distinctively; Young has Frankie down cold, Piazza (also in his late 30s) sharply expresses Tommy’s streetwise edge and impulsiveness but with enough likability to suggest why everyone always forgave the guy, while Bergen, a veteran of the show’s Las Vegas production, is very appealing as the nice-guy outsider who provided the essential missing ingredient to the band. Lomenda’s Massi, the last to join the group and the first to leave, hangs in the background much of the time but finally emerges interestingly when he takes over as a narrator.

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Doyle’s brashly confident Bob Crewe supplies not only energy but interesting gay currents to an otherwise macho Italian-American scene. Bathed in muted hues dominated by tans and browns, the film has a warm, fulsome look courtesy of Tom Stern’s cinematography, James J. Murakami’s production design and Deborah Hopper’s costumes; one dazzling effects shot rises from ground level up the facade of Manhattan’s legendary Brill Building to peer in the windows of multiple floors’ worth of music publishers and agents.

Very occasionally, however, the feeling of the studio backlot is inescapable, and there are a couple of Jersey neighborhood vistas that simply look too California, including one with mountains visible in the far background.

Opens: June 20 (In Los Angeles Film Festival, closing night.)
Production: GK Films, Malpaso
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Renee Marino, Erica Piccinini, Joseph Russo, Donnie Kehr, Kathrine Narducci, Steven Schirripa
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice, based on the musical play “Jersey Boys,” book by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Graham King, Rob Lorenz
Executive producers: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tim Moore, Tim Headington, Brett Ratner, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
Song music, Bob Gaudio; lyrics, Bob Crewe
Rated R, 135 minutes