Jersey Boys (2014) / Drama-Musical
MPAA Rated: R for language throughout
Running Time: 134 min.
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Renee Marino, Joseph Russo, Jeremy Luke
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice (based on their musical)
Review published June 21, 2014
Jersey Boys is the story of the rise of the early rock-and-roll group The Four Seasons (and front-man Frankie Valli), who came into public prominence mostly in the early 1960s with a flurry of popular hits still beloved today. Like many popular artists of the pre-British Invasion period, their bubble-gum lyrics and doo-wop harmonies were as catchy as catchy can be, even though the group that sang such innocuous music have come from a rough-and-tumble Italian neighborhood upbringing. The film is adapted from the long-running, Tony-winning Broadway musical of the same name, written by the film's screenwriters, Marshall Brickman (Manhattan Murder Mystery, Manhattan) and Rick Elice.
Starting off in their Belleville, New Jersey neighborhood in the early 1950s, a trio of wannabe singers and two-bit hoodlums with mob dabblings enlist the services of then 16-year-old Francis Castellucio (Young, Oy Vey! My Son is Gay!), a hairdresser with a golden falsetto voice, to come sing in their fledgling musical group; Castellucio would later adopting the stage name, Frankie Valli. Tommy DeVito (Piazza, Stephanie Daley) is the leader of the group, along with friend bass guitarist Nick Massi (Lomenda), but it isn't until the future famous actor Joe Pesci (Russo, Jersey Shore Shark Attack) hooks them up with singer/songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Bergen, How Sweet It Is) that they really begin to have crossover viability. They shop their talents around, eventually landing into a contract with record producer Bob Crewe (Doyle, Laws of Attraction), and they become The Four Seasons, soon topping the charts with three consecutive#1 smashes, "Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry", and "Walk Like a Man". However, personal problems within the group amplify along with the pressures of success, threatening to kill their careers just as they are beginning to take root.
Although based on a musical, Jersey Boys plays like a straight drama most of the time, only engaging in the music when it comes time to actually sing, whether in rehearsals or on the stage (the sole exception is at the beginning of the end credits when the cast comes out for a song and dance number). The breaks from "reality" occur when the characters break the fourth wall to speak directly to us about their experiences, still set in the time of the scene, but told as if with great distance and hindsight. It's a narrative device that could have been done with voice-over instead, and some viewers might find these asides them out of the drama. Personally, I liked the stylish approach, and it does keep the vibe of the stage play intact.
Though he has directed biopic of jazz legend Charlie Parker in Bird, director Clint Eastwood (Flags of Our Fathers, Million Dollar Baby) is an odd fit as a director of a pop band piece. The film doesn't always play to his strengths, and while one doesn't sense that Clint is passionate about the material from what we see on the screen, he does a professional job, and manages to keep it interesting for the most part. It does feel overlong for a story that only offers a superficial take on the events, perhaps because the last quarter of the film, which features the dissolution of the band, isn't nearly as interesting or fun as when the times were rollicking. Eastwood does get the setting and tempo mostly correct, and when the scenes play for drama, he is able to draw out some good character beats and a handful of fascinating developments.
If the film stumbles in its tone, it's in the comic dialogue that is interspersed throughout the movie, which Eastwood has play out in the course of normal conversation. The punch lines just hang out there to dry, while what might play out as comic-relief zingers in a heightened theatrical setting seem like contrived, written lines while observed as personal interactions among friends.
Jersey Boys does benefit from decent performances, some by actors who appeared in the Broadway hit. These performances are especially impressive considering the somewhat shallow and highly caricaturized nature of the individual roles. Tony-winning John Lloyd Young fronts the quartet nicely, and really does make one do a double-take when listening to his very Valli-esque vocal performance. Despite approaching 40 years of age in real life, Young lives up to his name, as he does play a credible teenager in the early scenes. Perhaps even stronger is Vincent Piazza's turn as the troubled Tommy DeVito, whose gambling addiction would soon become the main albatross to the group's continued success. Erich Bergen looks out of place as the lyricist Bob Gaudio, but given that he is from a different background, the incongruity can be rationalized. The only big name in the cast is Christopher Walken (Seven Psychopaths, Stand Up Guys) in a small role as Gyp DeCarlo, the mob boss who is a sort of guardian angel to the group because he finds Valli's silky styles emotionally stirring (or something like that).
Does the film capture the joy and toe-tapping pleasure of seeing the stage musical? Only occasionally, and in those moments, it shines. Other times, Eastwood's high-sheen adaptation appears to be leaden and lost in moroseness that undercuts the appeal of the up-tempo songs to the point where they sometimes cancel each other out. It's hard to really get fully into the spirit of the peppy pop songs when we're continuously told that the band is completely miserable together. Still, the film, even when it sags, is watchable enough throughout, and though it pales in comparison to the energy of the stage, it's worthwhile as a standalone cinematic piece for less-demanding fans, and the uninitiated. In terms of Four Seasons song-title ratings, Jersey Boys feels somewhere between "Oh, What a Night!", and, "Ain't That a Shame."
©2014 Vince Leo