Let’s face it: Jersey Boys has never been high art. The wildly successful jukebox musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons ran on chart-topping hit songs and ample corny shtick in nominally telling the story of the beloved pop act. Now, it’s all been folded into a Clint Eastwood film that’s neither theatrical fish nor cinematic foul.
John Lloyd Young reprises his Tony-winning role as Valli, the boy with the golden whiny falsetto and the friends who are “bad influences.” Local tough Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) first ropes sixteen-year-old Frankie into a crime (though Valli narrowly escapes the “revolving door” of prison) and then into performing with Tommy’s band. When Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) comes along with a head for musicianship and business, the act reaches a new level. Soon, the Four Seasons—rounded out by Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda)—are a sensation.
The film, scripted by Jersey Boys playwrights Marshall Brickman (Annie Hall) and Rick Elice, retains much of the play in alternating musical numbers ("December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)," “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You”) from the group’s deep bench and compacted drama that strives for efficiency in explaining the band’s origins, challenges, and resolution (such as it is) in the 1990 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Reunion.
On the whole, this results in a “Greatest Hits” format for both the music and the drama. Literalized on film, the theatrical reduction of the band’s story has an anemic complexion (as does the bleached photography of Eastwood’s go-to cinematographer Tom Stern). The film is least interesting when it feels like an impressionist’s act (complete with put-on mook accents) and more interesting when it captures the dynamics of a group with strong egos and competing concerns. The inevitable “group argument” scenes —one refereed by the young Joe Pesci (Joey Russo) (yes, that Joe Pesci was hanging around back in the day) and the other by real-life mobster “Gyp” DeCarlo (Christopher Walken)—offer the clearest signs of life.
It’s all rather square, with Valli characterized as effectively saintly (other than leaving his daughter in the care of an alcoholic “ex,” an opportunity for scenes of redemption and tragedy): indeed, he’s waggishly dubbed “Saint Francis.” The big idea here is that it’s quite something how the Four Seasons had loose mob ties and a criminal record, but that turns out to be a nonstarter in dramatic terms. More useful are the competing takes of each of the Four Seasons, afforded in monologues spoken directly to the camera and creating a light Rashomon effect.
Lovers of Jersey Boys and its music will no doubt appreciate the film, which benefits especially from the practiced performances of Young, Bergen, and Lomenda, all veterans of the stage play. It’s unclear whether the corny gloss of the play would have worked any better than Clint’s lower-key grasp at realism (probably not), but there’s a palpable release when Eastwood stages one of those full-cast “curtain call”s under the closing titles. No movie can’t be improved by Christopher Walken doing a shuffle.