For it’s rotating selection of Four Seasons hits like “Sherry” and “Walk Like a Man,” “Jersey Boys” could be called a jukebox musical.
But not only for that reason.
Like a coin-operated jukebox that relies on push buttons, stacks of vinyl and electric inner workings to make music, “Jersey Boys” feels like a mechanical retelling of the popular Broadway show.
The story begins in 1951 Belleville, New Jersey and follows childhood friends Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young who won a Tony for his performance of Valli on stage), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) from the streets to the studio and with the addition of songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), from clubs to concert halls as the Four Seasons, one of the biggest selling acts in rock history. Hits like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You kept them at the top of the charts but ego, in-fighting and money troubles blew them apart.
Clint Eastwood has turned his camera on the Broadway hit, creating a fourth-wall-breaking musical that sticks to the basics of the original show. They were a proto-boy band—imagine New Kids on the Block without a drum machine—rubbing shoulders with the mob (in the form of Angelo ‘Gyp’ DeCarlo played by Christopher Walken) while presenting a clean-cut image that masked their scrappy real lives.
Eastwood sets up the story of the band well enough. From their hard scrapple beginnings to the height of their success, it’s a rags to riches story and when it focuses on the four band members it works. Unfortunately it takes a cast of characters to tell the tale and Eastwood seems content to allow his supporting actors to go off the charts theatrical.
Kathrine Narducci as Mary Delgado, Frankie’s wife and the woman who advised him on the sexiest spelling of his stage name (replacing a “y” with an “I” in Valli), for instance, is given a juicy scene near the beginning of the film only to allow it to spin out of control into a caricature of a femme fatale.
Speaking of stereotypes, Mike Doyle seems to be doing his best Paul Lynde impression as producer Bob Crewe.
By the time the end credits roll it’s clear that the movie is a caricature of a real life story. Nothing feels completely genuine, as if the theatricality of the stage version bled into the film.
There are some lovely set pieces that evoke an idealized 1950s New Jersey. In them the local beat cops know everybody’s name and girls at bars fall instantly in love with doo wop band singers. It feels like a postcard to the idea of what the 1950s and 60s were like. Eastwood has smoothed away all the hard edges, leaving only a finely polished “Happy Days” back lot style vision of the era.
What remains unchanged is the music. The songs are undeniably catchy and well performed by a cast, three quarters of which come from the various incarnations of the stage show. They are earworms that sound authentic, by and large thanks to Young who perfectly mimics Valli’s soaring multi-octave falsetto voice.
The bulk of the movie, unfortunately, doesn’t soar as high as Young’s voice. The Broadway show is basically a rock concert with a story. The big screen treatment requires more. As game as the actors are, they aren’t supported with enough real humanity in the script to make the audience care about them as people. The songs will stay in your head, the characters won’t.
“There is nothing that bonds a cast more than being in the back of a truck with live pigs,” says John Lloyd Young.
Young, who won a Tony for his performance of Frankie Valli on Broadway, plays the singer in the big screen adaptation of Jersey Boys. Teamed with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) Valli rose from the streets to the studio and with the addition of songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), from clubs to concert halls as the Four Seasons, one of the biggest selling acts in rock history. Hits like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You kept them at the top of the charts but ego, in-fighting and money troubles blew them apart.
Young, Lomenda and Piazza bonded on the third day of the shoot. “We were shooting a scene where we were in the middle of the desert and our car breaks down,” Young says. “We end up having to hitch a ride with a farmer and the back of the truck is filled with pigs. The three of us guys were actually in the back of this truck with a bunch of pigs, doing take after take, and every time the truck started it was like a lesson in pig execratory systems.
“It was a sequence that’s been cut from the movie,” he says, “but it proved to be a real bonding experience for us.”
Young, Lomenda and Bergen are all veterans of the stage show, which they say was a benefit when making the movie.
“Knowledge of that audience reaction is in our head and in every single thing we do as these characters on stage. You cannot forget that when you’re doing the same character onscreen. You know how the audience responds, and even though it is just crew guys, (director) Clint (Eastwood) and your fellow actors, you have those instincts in there. The audience is there with you.”
Frankie Valli was also with them. In fact, the singer has been a presence since before the show hit the stage.
“He showed up unannounced at a rehearsal before I had even completed my work building the character,” says Young of the Broadway show. “That was nerve wracking but by the time we got to the set I think he and I were both enjoying watching his life be immortalized by Clint Eastwood.”
“If you don’t write a good review for this I guarantee Frankie Valli will show up at your door,” chimes in Bergen. “He knows some people who know some people,” adds Young with a laugh.
Rock ’n’ roll and the movies have always had an uneasy relationship. For every film that hits all the right notes, like Quadrophenia or A Hard Day’s Night, there’s a host of tone-deaf films like Light of Day, featuring Michael J. Fox and Joan Jett as musical siblings, or Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, a glam-rock-and-disco re-imagining of the Beatles classic.
Rock ’n’ roll biographies are equally hit-and-miss. In The Buddy Holly Story, the toothy Gary Busey earned an Academy Award nomination for his portrayal of the rock legend, but Roger Ebert sneered that Dennis Quaid played Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire “as a grinning simpleton with a crazy streak.”
This weekend, Jersey Boys — directed by Clint Eastwood, and based on the Tony Award-winning musical — tells the story of ’60s hitmakers The Four Seasons. Songs like Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like A Man and Can’t Take My Eyes Off You made them one of the biggest-selling rock acts of all time.
Lesser known than the Four Seasons but louder, faster and dirtier were The Runaways, the subject of a rambunctious 2010 movie. Set back when you could still drink a bottle of stolen booze in the shade of the Hollywood sign, The Runaways focuses on two glue-sniffing, tough girls named Joan Jett (Kristen Stewart) and Cherie Currie (Dakota Fanning) who formed the underage all-girl band. The music of The Runaways was described as the “sound of hormones raging,” and this film captures that.
I’m Not There is a hard movie to describe. It’s a metaphoric retelling of Bob Dylan’s life, but none of the characters in it are called Bob Dylan. Most of them don’t look like Dylan, and the one who most looks like Dylan is a woman. Unlike Walk the Line or Ray, which were both standard-issue Hollywood biopics, there is nothing linear here, but then there is nothing straightforward about the man, so there should be nothing straightforward about the movie.
Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll is the title of eccentric English singer Ian Dury’s biggest hit and the 2010 biopic about his eventful life. Starring Andy Serkis, the film is as high voltage as one of Dury’s legendary live performances.
Finally, the film Control details the short life of Joy Division singer Ian Curtis (Sam Riley). After seeing the film at Cannes, Curtis’s bass player Peter Hook said he knew the movie “would be very well received because, even though it’s two hours long, only two people went to the toilet the whole time. In fact, one of them was (Joy Division founding member) Bernard (Sumner). The other one was a 70-year-old woman.”