By NATHAN LERNER
For 21st Century Media
“Jersey Boys” is a cinematic adaptation of the play about the American singing group, the Four Seasons. All of the quartet’s original members hailed from the Garden State, hence the title.
The film kicks off in 1951 in an old-fashioned barber shop in Belleville, N.J. Diminutive 16-year old, Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) is an aspiring barber, but has been relegated to sweeping the floor. He catches a break when local mob boss, Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), taps Frankie to give him a shave.
Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) are a pair of penny-ante criminals, who are rotating in and out of Rahway State Prison. They recruit Castelluccio, who had a 3½-octave range, to join their group as its lead singer. Castelluccio changes his surname to the more marquee-friendly Valli. Even with a new vocalist, the quartet struggles unsuccessfully to ferret out gigs and cut a record.
Then, they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a composer/keyboard player/singer, who hailed from a more wholesome background. At the tender age of 15, the precocious lad had written the ditty, “Shorts Shorts.” As a member of the Royal Teens, he recorded the song and turned into a hit.
Gaudio joined the Four Seasons and composed a series of breakthrough hits for them. This included “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Rag Doll.” The film presents inert renditions of several trademark songs as performed “The Ed Sullivan Show” and “American Bandstand,” rather than as full-fledged production numbers.
As the film depicts, producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) capitalized on Valli’s distinctive falsetto with the ingenious notion of double tracking it. The film ignores Crewe’s contributions as a lyricist for the group and such technical innovations as the melancholia-inducing harmonica in “Big Man in Town” and the futuristic organ backing in “Save it For Me.”
The film bogs down in an extended section about the group’s founder, DeVito. From the film’s outset, he is defined as an overbearing blowhard with a foul mouth and larcenous proclivities. However, DeVito’s conduct becomes unbearable and his outstanding debts to loan sharks becomes a pivotal plot element. In a magnanimous gesture, Valli assumes the debt.
DeVito’s shenanigans trigger the group’s break-up. To pay off DeVito’s marker, Valli is forced to perform 200 nights a year with a new backing group. His constant touring generates familial strife with his wife, Mary (Renee Marino), and three daughters.
Three of the Broadway leads (Young, Piazza, and Lomenda) reprise their respective roles here. Young does a nice turn as an honorable guy possessed with a streak of loyalty, while Piazza is convincing as a slime-ball. New addition, Bergen, is a sympathetic point of identification as Gaudio. Collectively, they provide excellent harmonizing, which approximates that of the Four Seasons. Christopher Walken adds a memorable line to his filmography, “Stay out of my bathroom!” Renee Marino is tremendous as Valli’s spitfire wife, but her character is given grossly inadequate screen time.
“Jersey Boys” opened on Broadway in 2005 and ended up winning four Tony Awards. It subsequently had three North American National Tours and was produced abroad in London’s West End, Paris, Singapore, Toronto, South Africa, the Netherlands, and various other locations. Marshall Brickman (Woody Allen’s collaborator on “Annie Hall” and “Manhattan”) and Rick Elice provided the book for the stage musical. Carried by the Four Seasons’ skein of hit songs and mobile sets, the theatrical version exuded an infectious energy.
At the ripe old age of 84, Clint Eastwood has taken on the challenge of adapting his first musical. Eastwood caterwauled his way through “Paint Your Wagon,” along with other egregiously miscast actors, Lee Marvin and Jean Seberg. As anyone who endured Eastood’s warbling in that film can attest, it certainly did not inspire confidence that Eastwood could direct a musical.
However, Eastwood is steeped in music. He previously helmed the country-music drama, “Honkytonk Man” and “Bird,” the biopic about jazz saxophonist, Charlie Parker. In addition, Eastwood has eight credits as a film composer and 25 credits for contributions to film soundtracks. So, one might argue that Eastwood was not such an illogical choice after all.
Unfortunately, Eastwood has made certain directorial decisions that undermine the film. Like other jukebox musicals, the play was used to showcase the quartet’s numerous hits. It had an adumbrated narrative skeleton. While remaining largely faithful to the play’s text, Eastwood has inverted the relative importance of its musical and narrative components. This results in a lifeless and melodramatic movie, which is interrupted intermittently by songs, rather than a work with the tunes organically integrated into it.
The film closes with “(December, 1963), What a Night,” mounted as a full-fledged production number with the entire cast dancing in a city street. It demonstrates what this film could have been.
Clint Eastwood has directed 35 prior films, but had never helmed a bona fide musical. He still hasn’t.
★★½ R (for language throughout) 132 minutes.