A film review by Craig J. Koban June 27, 2014 

JERSEY BOYS j
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½ 

2014, R, 134 mins.

 

John Lloyd Young as Frank Valli  /  Vincent Piazza as Tommy Devito  /  Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio  /  Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi  /  Christopher Walken as Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo  /  Mike Doyle as Bob Crewe  /  Freya Tingley as Francine Valli  /  Renee Marino as Mary Delgado

Directed by Clint Eastwood  /  Written by Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman

The central irony of JERSEY BOYS – a loose film adaptation of the Tony Award winning jukebox musical of the same name – is that it chronicles one of the most iconic pop groups in recording history...and manages to be somewhat tone deaf throughout.  

Of course, JERSEY BOYS tells the obligatory rags-to-riches tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who were arguably the biggest recording group before The Beatles made their legendary appearance on the music scene.  The Four Seasons song catalogue is among the most memorable and listened to ever: the group has sold an estimated 100 million records.  The Broadway musical about their lives has won over and charmed both critics and audiences since its debut in 2005.  A film adaptation of it should have been a proverbial win-win scenario. 

Yet, why is JERSEY BOYS such a relative choir to sit through and endure?  The original musical – based on recollections from people that have seen it (I have not) – was a delightful and lively toe-tapping delight.  Yet, the two-hour plus film version opts to forego being an energetic and colorful big screen musical and instead tries to be a relative by-the-books and conventional biopic of the group.  This, frankly, is a costly mistake that robs the film of any type of spirited gusto that it could have attained to do the stage musical justice.  A lion’s share of the blame falls of director Clint Eastwood, and although the Oscar winning filmmaker has never stepped back from any type of subject matter over his career, he nonetheless remains a wrong choice for JERSEY BOYS’ underlining material.  Eastwood shoots the film with such a laid back, flat, charmless, and grungy aesthetic that the film never really gains a pulse throughout.  Instead of feeling thoroughly enraptured in the legendary music of the Four Seasons and their story, Eastwood makes us feel at an unflattering distance from it.  

 

 

At least Eastwood, a musician in his own right, wisely acknowledges the greatness and uniqueness of the songs and sound of The Four Seasons.  Jersey-born Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) had a golden voice like no other, but nonetheless never really believed that he was destined for greatness.  It was only at the insistence of his pal Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) that Valli joined his then struggling and up-and-coming pop group, which would eventually be comprised of bass guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).  They would become known as The Four Seasons and – with Gaudio’s wonderful written talents - would churn out hit after hit, like “Big Girls Don’t Dry,” “Sherry,” “Walk Like A Man,” and so on and so on.  Like all popular groups, The Four Seasons catapulted to fame relatively quickly, but along the way they became beset with emotional roadblocks that spiritually held them back as a cohesive group, which included Valli’s estranged relationship with his alcoholic wife (Freya Tingley) and DeVito’s monetary woes with the mob. 

The script – adapted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice from their own book that influenced the Broadway musical – has a peculiar, yet cohesive narrative structure of allowing for all members of The Four Seasons (minus, oddly enough, Valli himself) to break the fourth wall and communicate to the audience regarding the highs and lows of the group since their formation in the early 1950’s.  Wisely, Eastwood retained most of the performers of the stage musical to reprise their roles in the film (with the exception of BOARDWALK EMPIRE’s Vincent Piazza).  It should be noted that a majority of the songs here were filmed live without post-production dubbing after the fact, which gives the music its proper due.  John Lloyd Young in particular is a vocal dynamo, who effortlessly captures the tenor of Valli’s voice and gives JERSEY BOYS an instant sense of authenticity.  When he’s churning out those classic tunes the film is always on point, musically at least. 

Yet, the typically disciplined and stalwart Eastwood and his work behind the camera betrays the effervescent work of his lead stars.  The manner with which he shoots the various musical sequences and montages in the film are disappointingly muted and lack the ethereal, in-the-moment vigor that they desperately need.  Yes, Eastwood – whom has made many memorable period films in the past – certainly is up to the task of recreating the overall look and feel of The Four Seasons’ 1950’s/1960’s era milieu (the production values are unreservedly strong here), but he seems too insistent on a pseudo-documentary feel to the proceedings that severely stunts the forward momentum of the picture.  Eastwood has always been known to have a shrewd and understated less-is-more filmmaking style that has lent itself incalculable well to his past work, but here it holds JERSEY BOYS back throughout it’s already elephantine 134 minutes. 

The screenplay does manage to capture the oftentimes tumultuous forming, rise, and hurdles that Valli and his partners went through while celebrating their noteworthy successes as well.  The problem, I guess, is that too much of JERSEY BOYS feels like a routine and painfully conventional committee job that leaves no big screen biopic cliché left unturned.  Aside from the initial novelty of having members of The Four Seasons “speak” directly to viewers, the film has nothing truly intimate or revealing to say – or manner of saying it - about its subject that we couldn’t have received in a dutiful, audience-placating TV film on auto-pilot.  Even when the script does get into the headspaces of Valli and his on-stage companions, it leaves many other characters and subplots terribly underdeveloped.  The film’s mob-centric elements have a been-there/done-that flavour (granted, a little bit of Christopher Walken – playing an old and melancholic good fella that’s loyal to Valli – goes a long way).  The female characters in this film in particular are given a mournful backseat: Freya Tingley’s wife role is not developed beyond an unsympathetic boozing floozy stereotype and a potentially heartbreaking side story involving Valli and his troubled daughter is introduced, discarded, and then re-introduced into the proceedings when the film deems it convenient for a would-be emotional payoff. 

Alas, the failures of JERSEY BOYS have nothing to do with the fine cast and their work: They give it their all with the material given and the unbridled nostalgia viewers have for The Four Seasons will help the film go down finer.  No, when it boils right down to it, Eastwood is just a wrong fit for this material, trying to put a square dramatic peg into a round musical hole.  At least JERSEY BOYS ends on a rousing and triumphant note in an end credits sequence where Eastwood finally – and inexplicably – gives us an explosively enjoyable song and dance number with all of the members of the cast performing “December 1963.”  There’s more genuine and heartfelt adulation, excitement, and pulsating visual interest in this short moment than in the entirety of JERSEY BOYS.  I’m glad that the film ended this way, but it left with one nagging and unshakable thought: Why didn’t Eastwood just go for broke and make JERSEY BOYS this way from beginning to end?  Now that would have been terrific

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