John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza and Michael Lomenda in Jersey Boys (Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros. Pictures)
Based on the hit Broadway musical of the same name, Jersey Boys chronicles the rise, fall and redemption of iconic ’60s pop group the Four Seasons. Directed with an uncharacteristically springy touch by Clint Eastwood (likely the only working Hollywood director old enough to have appreciated the Seasons’ music when it was released), the film bobs and weaves through nearly three decades of musical history as it tracks the journey of four Italian-American “neighborhood guys” who made it from blue-collar New Jersey to the top of the pops with both their integrity and their mob ties intact.
Tommy DeVito is a minor wise-guy with major aspirations who, along with wry petty crook Nick Massi, forms an amateur doo-wop band named the Four Lovers. Suddenly, his ambition pays off when he puts his boyish younger pal Frankie Valli center stage. Valli, a surprisingly gifted singer with a one-of-a-kind soprano, makes the group’s sound pop like never before, but they’re still in need of an original songwriter. Enter Bob Gaudio, a pencil-neck nerd who makes up for his muted personality with his incredibly boisterous compositions.
Together, this unlikely foursome becomes the Four Seasons, rocketing to the heights of superstardom with a series of hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Working My Way Back to You” and many others. Along the way, the group faces heartbreak, financial woes and becomes entangled with some dangerous people from their old unsavory walk of life, but they still manage to persevere thanks to the power of music.
As someone who was lucky enough to see the original live production when it premiered back in 2005, I feel qualified to say that this story can be an absolute showstopper when handled right. The film keeps the faux-documentary style of the production intact to great effect – featuring long monologues in which the characters break the third wall, speaking directly to the viewer about the events we’re witnessing as they happen a la Goodfellas. However, it felt as though there were certain elements that worked on stage which were lost in translation when it came time to transfer them onto celluloid. For one, the performances often felt too “big” and hammy on screen. These sort of stagey readings work when watching a live ensemble bounce around from the mezzanine, but when those same moments are captured with close-up cinematic intimacy, they begin to read less as theatrical pep and more as cheesy overacting.
Most of the actors in the film were cast directly out of various touring productions of the musical, and their inexperience in the film medium shows through. Young actress Renée Marino goes laughably over the top in playing Frankie’s shrill wife Mary, and Erich Bergen gives a stilted, wooden turn as Bob Gaudio. Nevertheless, not all of the players are lacking. “Boardwalk Empire” star Vincent Piazza brings a brooding intensity to the character of Tommy, and leading man John Lloyd Young has acting talent to match his prodigious pipes as Frankie Valli.
Another major hindrance at work here is the fact that the film can’t quite make up its mind tonally. At times, Eastwood delivers a blown-up, amplified version of the Broadway show complete with all its jukebox levity. Then, he flits into sober biopic territory, attempting to play everything straight as an arrow like some Northeast version of Walk the Line. Unfortunately the two halves do not gel together particularly smoothly, creating a schizoid vibe which causes certain key scenes to miss the mark altogether. For instance, a late second-act episode involving Frankie’s daughter’s struggles with drug addiction feels perfunctory and rote, not having earned its implied emotional resonance.
Indeed, there is so much ground to cover here that, inevitably, certain story lines and character arcs get the short shrift. In the naturally jaunty medium of musical theater, these time leaps work, but when the film asks you to take it seriously as a prestige drama, they feel rushed and anticlimactic. Regardless, more than anything, this film is a celebration of a certain chapter in the great American songbook, and it truly soars when the music takes hold. The bubbly, fun ballads of the Four Seasons have passed the test of time with flying colors, making for rousing, ecstatic set-pieces whenever Valli starts crooning. Overall, Jersey Boys often aims higher than it needs to, perhaps owing to director Eastwood’s Oscar pedigree. That being said, when the movie hits its mark, it becomes a true challenge to keep fingers from snapping and toes from tapping.
Warner Bros. Pictures
Currently in theaters
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