Jersey Boys (United States, 2014)

June 20, 2014
A movie review by James Berardinelli
Jersey Boys Poster

Initially, the stage-to-screen transition of the Broadway musical Jersey Boys was expected to be helmed by Jon Favreau. When Favreau withdrew, it opened the door for veteran director Clint Eastwood to take the reins. Eastwood's approach to telling the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons is less ostentatious than what one might expect from, say, Rob Marshall. If the musical numbers sometimes lack energy, that's mostly because of the way in which they have been filmed. This straightforward biopic account of Valli's life exposes how generic it was. These might be true events but there's nothing in Jersey Boys that we haven't seen in other rags-to-riches-to-rags tales. The film's notable quality is the music and as soon as one song is finished, we're ready for the next one. Unfortunately, there are often long passages of dialogue and narrative to endure before getting there. This may be a more literate approach to putting the musical oeuvre of a group on screen than Mamma Mia! but it's also significantly less entertaining.

Jersey Boys is presented from the points-of-view of three of the four founding members of The Four Seasons: Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), all of whom directly address the camera from time-to-time. The only one who never breaks the fourth wall is Valli (John Lloyd Young). Although the basic narrative is the same as that of the play, the structure has been reworked to be more linear and less perspective-oriented.

The story begins in 1951 New Jersey with Frankie being recruited as the lead singer for a group that includes his best friend, Tommy, and another eventual member of The Four Seasons, Nick. Deciding they need a fourth player, they conclude a deal with Bob, who in addition to playing an instrument, is a writer. After toiling for a while in low-paying gigs, they score a record contract and three hit singles follow: "Sherry", "Big Girls Don't Cry", and "Walk Like a Man." But as they rise to the top of the charts and make appearances on "American Bandstand" and "The Ed Sullivan Show," cracks appear, especially regarding Tommy's participation. His debts to a loan shark threaten to sink him. This eventually results in The Four Seasons breaking up and Frankie going off on his own.

Three of the four actors playing the leads were recruited from professional productions of Jersey Boys, including John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie on Broadway. Two other members of the Broadway cast are also seen on screen: Erica Piccininni as Frankie's mistress and Donnie Kehr as the loan shark Norm Waxman. Joining Young, Michael Lomenda, and Erich Bergen is Vincent Piazza, who had no previous connection to Jersey Boys but who fits in fine. As was the case with the stage version, the way in which Young's voice approximates Frankie Valli's is one of the most remarkable things about the film, especially when one considers that the songs were recorded during live takes, not dubbed in post-production. All four of the principals do solid work and it's easy to see why Eastwood chose Piazza, who is the standout. The only "name" actor to appear is Christopher Walken and, as usual, his performance is top-notch, oozing snake oil salesman charm.

The most disappointing aspect of Jersey Boys is how dramatically inert the production is. Several scenes are devoted to developing the tragic interaction between Frankie and his daughter, Francine. Yet when a resolution arrives, the emotional payoff is minimal. Eastwood never "sells" the relationship to the point where we become invested. The narrative follows a simple, unremarkable trajectory that provides an excuse to plunder The Four Seasons' catalog. And, although the staging of the songs is mostly restrained and straightforward, the music is strong enough in its own right to hold the viewer's attention. (Although this may be an age-dependent comment since most of these songs were chart-toppers during the 1960s and will hold minimal appeal for younger viewers.)

Visually, Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern elect to present the movie with desaturated color. While never in full black-and-white, this "faded" approach is appropriate for a group whose days at the top of the charts are long past and who now exist in the province of oldies radio stations. The period detail is impeccable. This looks like the cast and crew took a time machine back into the '50s and '60s and made the movie then.

Jersey Boys comes to life only toward the end. When Frankie sings "Can't Take My Eyes Off You," there's a palpable energy. Later, at the start of the end credits, Eastwood finally gives us a song-and-dance number with "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)". It's a great moment but it makes us realize how much more lively the entire film could have been. Although not a rote adaptation of the play (it has been reworked to make it more conventional and cinematic), it should please fans of the live version. Of course, those with an affinity for The Four Seasons will adore it. But the film lacks the inherent greatness that would allow it to entice a wider audience. As such, it's more of a niche film than a mainstream offering.

Jersey Boys (United States, 2014)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Freya Tingley, Erica Piccininni
Screenplay: Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Cinematography: Tom Stern
Music: Bob Gaudio
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:14
U.S. Release Date: 2014-06-20
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity, Sexual Content)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1