With John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken. Written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R for language throughout. 132 minutes.
Okay grown-ups. Those of you who have despaired of finding any major studio release amidst the flood of monster, superhero, fairy tale, and goofy comedy movies now have something to go see. Of course there are some excellent documentaries, indies, and foreign films and you shouldn’t limit your choices, but Hollywood has finally answered your call as well. That the adaptation of the Broadway hit JERSEY BOYS is that film isn’t surprising. That this musical biography is directed by 83-year-old Clint Eastwood may be startling. (He turned 84 since shooting the film.)
For those not familiar with the show, it’s the story of singer Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. In many ways, it follows the formula for this kind of movie as we watch the star’s rise and fall and ultimate redemption. If the outline is familiar, the details will not be to those new to the story. In the early 1950s, young Francesco Castelluccio–played by John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for his stage performance–occasionally sings for his friend Tommy DeVito’s (Vincent Piazza) trio and comes to the attention of local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).
People waiting for the familiar hits will have to bide their time as we watch the group slowly evolve, bringing in Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). (In a great bit of amazing-but-true trivia, the person who brings Gaudio to their attention is future actor Joe Pesci.) Suddenly, they discover their sound and the hits start rolling out: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man.” With success comes problems, both among the band members and in their personal lives.
The last time Eastwood directed a musician’s biography it was “Bird” (1988), and if you were not a fan of jazz great Charlie Parker it was a difficult film to embrace. This time, Eastwood seems to have the audience in mind, fudging period details so long as he gets the overall era right, and letting us see Valli as an essentially decent if all-too-human figure. He (and adapters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) also preserve the conceit of allowing some of the characters to address us directly, so we not only get a sense of who they are but how they wish to be seen.
Even fans of the music may be surprised to learn some of the details behind the songs. The genesis of “Big Girls Don’t Cry” comes across as too-cute but is amazing if true, while when we hear a recording executive declare another song as something not worth releasing it’s quite a surprise when we find out what it is. As for the performances, three of the four leads all come from various stage productions of “Jersey Boys” and know their characters in and out. Piazza is the newcomer and runs with a choice if difficult part. Walken is always a delight, and Mike Doyle steals every scene he’s in as flamboyant record producer Bob Crewe. The women get less screen time but Renée Marino scores in her screen debut as Valli’s wife as does Freya Tingley as the teenage version of Valli’s troubled daughter Francine.
People sometimes ask why Hollywood doesn’t make film musicals like they used to. It’s a fair question, but when one looks at the best of the screen musicals of the last twenty years or so it’s clear that coming from a hit Broadway show helps little. “Rent,” “Evita,” “A Chorus Line,” “The Producers,” and “Phantom Of The Opera” all flopped on the big screen, and even “Sweeney Todd” only found a limited audience. (The success of train wrecks like “Mamma Mia” and “Les Miserables” are the exceptions to the rule.) What’s worked best on the big screen were those films where many of the songs were presented as performances within the context of the movie, whether real or imagined, such as “Chicago” and “Hairspray.” It’s a pleasure to add “Jersey Boys” to that short list.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide. He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.