The film, directed by Clint Eastwood of all people and adapted from the mega-successful Broadway musical of the same name, tells the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who rose from New Jersey obscurity to musical legend status.
Covering a period from the late ’50s to the mid ’70s- with an epilogue in 1990- “Jersey Boys,” despite its Broadway roots, owes much more to the tradition of the musical biopic.
The film tells the story of how Valli, a young barber’s assistant with a beautiful voice, was brought into an existing group that included local hothead Tommy DeVito and sideman Nick Massi. Later joining the group is keyboardist/songwriter Bob Gaudio, the one member of the group not native to the old neighborhood.
(Yes, that’s right- the Four Seasons’ guitarist was named Tommy DeVito, which is also the name of Joe Pesci’s character in “Goodfellas.” The real Pesci was friends with the crew in New Jersey, is credited with introducing Valli to Gaudio, and even appears here as a character. The real-life DeVito, like the fictional one, was a mob-connected hothead whose antics often endangered those around him. And the same actor plays another real-life gangster, Lucky Luciano, in Boardwalk Empire.)
“Jersey Boys” gets all of the important things right: It features some of the best pop music in history, sung very well by actors who give decent performances, playing the characters from their teenage years into middle age. The decision to cast the movie with relative unknowns (John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio) was risky, but ultimately the right one. The visual style is top notch. There are even some memorable moments; the scene in which the four members of the group make their sound for the first time is one of the more magical movie moments of the year.
No, it doesn’t quite pop the way the stage version did. But the “Jersey Boys” movie left me in a good mood, and humming the songs to myself for at least a couple of days afterward.
So what’s wrong with “Jersey Boys”? A few things:
- This is a movie that very much idealizes midcentury, blue-collar, street-centered New Jersey, but comes at it in a pretty innocuous manner. There’s no sex, little violence, and the only blood is fake blood. (The movie is rated R, seemingly for language and language only.) Then there’s Christopher Walken’s mob boss character, who has to be the most benevolent, nonviolent gangster in movie history. We see a lot of him settling disputes and facilitating sit-downs, but not so much threatening or killing people, or otherwise committing crimes. Another disappointment? Walken’s in a musical, and we don’t even get to see him sing (though he does dance briefly.)
- The narrative is structured poorly. The movie takes its time getting going, to the point where the run of familiar hits by the group (“Sherrybaby,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”) doesn’t start until almost an hour into the movie. At one point there’s a completely unnecessary flashback that’s so lengthy we forget it’s even a flashback. And while the movie uses the rise/fall/rise-again formula familiar from biopics, it awkwardly shoehorns into the narrative two disconnected big events- Valli’s daughter’s death and the recording of “Can’t Keep My Eyes Off You”- which in real life happened 13 years apart, and in the reverse order.
- The ending is bungled completely- the film ends perfectly well, and then it ends two more times. Then, for some reason we see the 1950s incarnations of the characters singing a song (“Oh, What a Night”) from 1975.
- I’d call the character of Valli’s wife Mary (Renée Marino) one-dimensional, but I’m not sure yelling at and insulting the hero repeatedly even counts as a “dimension.” What a rotten, nasty portrayal.
Fans of the stage show, and of the Four Seasons in general, will likely have a good time at “Jersey Boys.” But a movie ticket costs about one-tenth of a Broadway one, and in this case, you get what you pay for.