Jersey Boys the film may be adapted from Jersey Boys the hit Broadway show but it never feels as though you’re watching a fully fledged musical. On stage, everything revolved around the songs. In the film, it’s the rise and fall of The Four Seasons told from the perspective of each band member – the songs, when they come, feel secondary. It’s as though director Clint Eastwood wanted to make a musical for people who don’t usually care for musicals.
When The Four Seasons came to fame during the early sixties they were presented as clean-cut boys from Jersey. Behind the scenes, the story was different. When we first meet sixteen year-old Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) he’s sweeping floors in a neighborhood barbershop. He’s also the lookout and getaway driver for petty criminal Tommy DeVito (Vencent Piazza). Tommy goes to jail for a botched robbery while the judge lets Frankie walk with a warning. It’s not a great beginning for what will be a musical partnership but it is a beginning, all the same. As Tommy tells us, “The only ways to escape (the neighborhood) were joining the army, getting mobbed up or getting famous. For us, it was two out of three.”
Once Tommy is released, Frankie reunites, and together with their friend Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and new guy to the area, budding songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) they form a band. “After thirty seconds, I knew I had to write for this voice,” Gaudio states to the camera upon hearing Castellucio sing. It’s only later, while on a date with the brazen Mary (Renee Marino) Frankie changes his name to Valli. He was going to be Vally with a y, but as Mary tells him, “You’re Italian, you gotta end with a vowel.”
The first fifty minutes deals with story as each of the band members turn to the camera and give their angle and thoughts on what’s happening. The principle narrator tends to be DiVitto, which is of no surprise considering it’s DiVitto’s fast-talking, neighborhood patter that not only propels the band forward during their early days but also gets himself, and everyone else in trouble, financial and otherwise.
There’s a lot of amusement to be had with the dialog. “I’m gonna be bigger than Sinatra,” Valli tells Mary on their first date. “Oh, yeah?” she asks. “Standing on a chair?” When the band finish their first set at a bar, Tommy tells his audience, “Drink up, then get lost. We got a second show at ten.”
As with all of his films, director Eastwood frames his shots well. Each scene is well composed – there’s nothing fussy or rushed – plus he’s already proven to have a fine ear for music and musical presentation, yet somehow the film manages to make the songs unexciting when it should be celebrating each hit tune. With the exception of the occasional individual performance – Can’t Take My Eyes Off You is a standout – the songs never feel fully alive, even though we’re allowed the pleasure of hearing complete songs instead of fragments.
Plus, the film has a myopic approach to time and place. Here we have a pop band producing number one hits, several in a row, while never acknowledging anything about the music business in general. Considering there was a musical revolution going on at the time, not to mention the musical influences of The Beatles, The Rolling Stones and that British invasion in general, you would think that someone at sometime would have remarked about the industry and what the competition was up to, but it never happens. Jersey Boys is all about the Jersey boys, and nothing on the outside has a chance of looking in.
Performances are uniformly good. John Lloyd Young reprises his stage role of Frankie Valli and does it well. Vincent Piazza is a powerhouse as Tommy DeVitto – he’s the kind of best friend you wished you never had running on batteries that never quit – and Christopher Walken is fun as mob boss Gyp DeCarlo who not only befriends Frankie Valli but is even a genuine fan. “A voice like that is a gift from God,” DeCarlo declares.
There’s also good humor throughout. When Joey Russo as a young Joe Pesci – yes, the Joe Pesci – is told he was being funny, Pesci replies with the now familiar, “I’m funny? Funny how?” Plus, we catch a glimpse of a certain black and white TV western playing on a living room set when televisions looked like furniture with a young looking Rowdy Yates smiling at the screen.
Yet, without the sense of joy and fun in the performances of the songs, the film feels incomplete as if the key element that inspired the film in the first place is now missing. It’s also interesting that one of the band’s biggest hits, and now their signature tune, December 1963 (Oh, What a Night) barely gets a mention. Music trivia buffs will know that the 1975 song is not really a part of the story involving the original Four Seasons lineup; it came later. On the other hand, considering that lead singer Valli sung mostly backup while drummer Gerry Polci sang lead, and the fact that the song became so huge, you’d think the conversations surrounding the writing, producing and recording of this one song alone would have made a fascinating sequence, but it doesn’t happen.
If you’re looking to enjoy the music of The Four Seasons then wait for the national touring company to return for a live performance of the musical where the songs and the singing are paramount. The film illustrates the story of the band well, but it never seems fully interested in the score; it’s more a bio-pic than a film version of the Broadway jukebox musical, which is fine if you know nothing about the show, but those who enjoyed Jersey Boys as theatre may have some reservations.
MPAA Rating: R Length: 134 Minutes Overall Rating: 7 (out of 10)