Jersey Boys (***1/2) is solid but dims the power of the band

jersey_boys_movie_poster

Jersey Boys – 2014

Director Clint Eastwood
Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken
Screenplay based on the play by Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice

 When reviewing a movie based upon a musical, it’s hard to see the origin material as anything other than a starting point. Most of the events may have happened in one form or another, but overall the material has been vetted to a series of vignettes designed to move the story from point A to B to C, etc., etc., etc.. By the time one checks out the original story or each individual’s Wikipedia page, it’s a battle of what versus when versus who. The thing that gets lost in the mix is that this indeed was a real group with real people and it was produced by two of Four Seasons.

What should be no surprise then, is that those two (Valli and Gaudio) end up looking like the smart ones. Not that it’s any consolation. There is plenty enough misery to go around. Thankfully the misery is not the kind one expects to see in any musical covering the 50’s and beyond: drugs. We see references to it, but not within the band. Their issues stem from money, mostly. It’s nothing that sets the movie on fire with passion. I will take that trade, though.

Like the play, the narrative takes place with each of the Four Seasons speaking to the camera as individuals at one point or another in the film. They give their perspective somewhat cynically, right within the context of the scenes they’re playing out. The effect is very Broadway, and a little off-putting within the limits of a film. Understanding what Clint Eastwood is trying to do within the context of the film, it makes sense. Eastwood, a director moving to his own beat for as long as one can remember, answers to no one at this point. This works in the context that the film definitely moves at its own pace. It was definitely not audience tested either.

On the other hand, the movie fails in the one context that should have been its strength: music. Some of the most memorable music of the 60’s and, ironically enough, the disco era, came from the pipes contained within the Four Seasons. This aspect is taken for granted by Eastwood. There are no show stopping musical numbers, and several of the songs are stripped of their powers by brevity and awkward placement.

One of the biggest successes of Jersey Boys is in the casting. Frankie Valli is masterfully portrayed by John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony in 2006 for the play. His portrayal is of a thoughtful artist who has the voice of an angel and is without the heart for cracking down on anyone. This makes him a perfect tool for Piazza’s Tommy DeVito, a small time hood with connections to Mob Boss Gyp DeCarlo (Walken). Tommy knows he can get somewhere with the kid who is an apprentice hair dresser, but somewhere ends up being night clubs and bowling alleys until Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci) leads him to Bob Gaudio (Bergen) who is a great songwriter and recognizes Frankie’s great voice for what it is: their ticket to the top.

It takes a while for that ticket to be punched, but when they come across Bob Crewe (brilliantly played by Mike Doyle), he signs them, uses them as in-house talent for a few years and then, when they bristle, he challenges them to come up with a some real hits and a better name than The Four Lovers. A short time later, they come up with Sherry, then Big Girls Don’t Cry, then Walk Like A Man. The process of discovering Sherry is kind of fun. Crewe hears it first over the phone, then comes up with the idea of doubling his voice on the spot. It hadn’t been done before, but now its history. Most of the scenes with Doyle have an ebullient energy that is not present in many musical biopics. Producers are usually presented as distant or too eclectic. Doyle’s Crewe is played a little more flamboyantly than his brother said he was in real life. Here it works like magic, though. An indelible elixir to the machismo presented by Piazza’s DeVito that allows the rest of the group to gel and stop being subjects under his rule. The film would have benefited showing more of the relationship between Crewe, Valli and Gaudio. They were together longer than the rest of the group.

Gaudio is another force that is more hinted at than explored by the film. His head is for business and it keeps him clear of the pitfalls that normally befall musicians. The film shows the special deal he struck up with Valli, but we don’t get to see much of it in fruition beyond the early hits. Gaudio is the writer of nearly all the group’s major hits throughout their recording career, even when he settled into the producers chair. We see none of this in the film. It is discussed towards the end. Oh, well. Bergen’s performance is almost as good as Doyle’s and it would have been nice to see him more.

DeVito and Massi’s careers with the group intermingle to a weird extent. The script even has them quitting the group at the same point, even if there was a 5 year gap in real life. Massi, as portrayed by Lomenda, is the strangest extension of characters. He refers to himself as the Ringo of the group, but he’s more like the Pete Best, as he left right as they started getting big. Why this change is made is likely due to the economy of characters. You’ve seen one bass player, you’ve seen them all, I guess.

 The bulk of the story leads to a climax of Valli shouldering the burden of DeVito’s misfortunes. It comes off as somewhat inexplicable, even to the point where one of his girlfriends mockingly refers to him as “Saint Francis.” The troubles of Job await him though, as we see him fight through personal challenges with a brave face that one cannot help but admire. If the story is half as true as presented, I wouldn’t mind shaking Frankie’s hand. Or even giving him a hug.

For one so stoic, Eastwood has sure developed a warm presence behind the camera. His color palate and framing are anything but severe and in being so, we lose some of the passion presented in the music of The Four Seasons. The emotion is still there, it’s just a bit more subdued than one might hope. Either way, this is a good film about a great band.

(***1/2 out of *****)

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