Ever since Baz Luhrmann attempted to infuse Western pop tunes with Bollywood schizophrenia, the resurrected big screen musical has returned with a vengeance. Indeed, the oldest talkie genre has enjoyed its own siren call over the last decade, beaconing eclectic filmmakers like Bill Condon, Chris Columbus, Tim Burton, and even…Clint Eastwood?!
Yep, with this weekend’s Jersey Boys, the Man with No Name is seeking to make his day in a toe-tapping jukebox sing-along based on the hit Broadway stage show of the same name. And as centered around the smooth sounds of the universally beloved Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, this is one meant for the whole family to hum in harmony to. But before you pull on your best velvety dinner jacket, you should probably know that it is just too good to be true. Jersey Boys is barely a musical, and a barely entertaining one at that.
Despite its Great White Way heritage, Jersey Boys as executed in Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s screenplay (and based on their own music book from the theatrical show) is almost beat for beat like any musical biopic—or a VH1 Behind the Music special. Whether it’s Ray, Walk the Line, or my personal favorite, Walk Hard, there is always the chafing chain felt when attempting to condense a successful artist’s life and career into two hours plus change. And the artists caught in the Campbellian garrote do not put up much resistance, despite their rough-and-tumble upbringing.
Starting out on the streets of the “neighborhood” in Newark during the late 1950s, the picture finds Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) already the successful crooner for the kids around the block, catching the eye of would-be wiseguy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and actual wiseguy Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). The former sees his ticket out of being stuck in New Jersey, and the latter just likes hearing his mama’s favorite songs recited with the voice of genuine inspiration.
It is nearly a throwaway part, but Walken, who has been playing gangsters for almost as long as the real Four Seasons have been around, gives it his special twinkle, which works wonders in this more lighthearted setting. But Piazza, aka Lucky Luciano on Boardwalk Empire, is the real standout as the self-destructive hustler with an actual eye for talent and an instinct on how to use it (and exploit it).
Over a languorous first act, Tommy ropes Frankie into being his little brother for small time robberies and smaller music venues where they, plus a rotating cast of band mates, become “the Four Lovers,” “the Romans,” “the Tropics,” and finally, following a failed audition at the Four Season bowling alley, well…you know the rest.
This sequence of the film is given a shot in the arm by Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, the other mastermind behind Valli’s golden vocals. Bob is recruited as a songwriter, but he proves to be just as sharp as DeVito in working the angles, but with the talent to back it up. Soon, he is cutting a side deal with Frankie for complete shared ownership of what would eventually become almost all of the Four Seasons’ catalogue: Bob wrote the tunes, and Frankie made them immortal. And to the credit of the actual Gaudio and Valli, nearly 45 years since their collaboration began, it is their doo-wop confections that give this movie its much needed lift, sure to bring a smile to any audience member who ever felt the urge to strut along to “Walk Like a Man.”
Sadly, the movie isn’t walking anywhere. It crawls to a finish line due to a shapeless form that feels strangely stilted despite all the music that drowns the second half of the picture.
In Eastwood’s reliably steady hands, Jersey Boys certainly has a sharp look. The director’s clean, no-nonsense simplicity is on full display in the movie’s very disciplined and even stoic recitation of “just the facts.” Or at least, how everyone chooses to remember them. However, such confident restraint proves the antithesis of rock and roll. Eastwood’s eye is like instrumental jazz in the wee small hours of the morning, but here he is trying to throw a primetime block party in the middle of the street. The result is the most muted musical in film history.
Midway through the flick, audiences are given a glimpse of the supposed true story behind “December, 1963, (Oh, What a Night)” which begins with Bergen’s buttoned up Bob looking at a Christmas Eve party filled with groupies dressed to the Mad Men nines and copious amounts of alcohol sprawled about. He turns to the camera for one of the picture’s many fourth-wall breaking asides (taken straight from the play) to say, “Tommy always knew how to throw a party.” Yet, despite the narration and bounding actors running around the hotel room, it still feels as sterile as a doctor’s waiting room.
Nevertheless, the movie will have its appeal to fans that just want to experience the Four Seasons one more time in a new medium. John Lloyd Young won a Tony for originating the part of Frankie Valli on stage in 2006, and he is still every bit as crisp in landing all of Frankie’s high notes. Bergen and Michael Lomenda, in the role of bassist Nick Massi, also have played their parts before in varying stage productions of Jersey Boys, and similarly bring that electric swagger for the original Jersey Land band. In the final scene, a very stagey curtain call for the whole cast when they sing “December 1963,” the actors look as happy and uninhibited for the showstopper as one wishes the whole movie had been.
Personally, I have never had the pleasure of seeing Jersey Boys on stage. However, a friend who did left the movie theater suggesting that those who want to have that experience should save their money for the show instead.
Be it stage or screen’s cause, Jersey Boys is a tune that we have all heard before. And the singularity of Valli’s voice notwithstanding, Frankie nor the rest of the personalities on screen succeed in offering anything new in the overpowering white noise of formulae. Ultimately, this is one you can take your eyes off of.