You would think that “Jersey Boys,” the hugely successful Broadway show — 13th longest-running in history — would lie far outside Clint Eastwood’s comfort zone. A known jazz and R&B aficionado, the director seems an odd match for the story of the troubled pop career of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Indeed the movie gets off to a slow start with fake looking period details, a leisurely approach and holdovers from the stage show, specifically the frequent breaks of the “fourth wall” to allow characters to address the audience.
Gradually, the story and its sharply defined characters takes ahold, however. While following an all-too-familiar show business trajectory of early struggle followed by success followed by an even greater struggle to deal with stardom and temptations, “Jersey Boys” genuinely benefits from the Eastwood touch.
In a long career as actor and then filmmaker that roughly parallels the time frame of Frank Valli and his group, Eastwood has endured many similar ups and downs. So these get treated with enormous empathy by Eastwood, playing the group’s travails not for gossip or shock value but as a meditation on the price many pay for headlining careers in show business.
One can imagine a much flashier, more heavily edited adaptation by a younger, “hipper” dude trying to impress with snap and flash and precision of scenes. In the end, it was a smart idea for the producers and Eastwood to tackle this material and give one of the seminal pop/rock groups of the ‘50s and ’60s its due.
The screenplay comes from the show’s original book writers, Marshall Brickman — remember the co-writer of “Annie Hall?” — and Rick Elice. I do question their strategy of maintaining the direct-address technique of some characters to break out of a scene to chat with the audience.
In a few places it works well, giving meaning and depth to what you’re watching, making one conscious that the veracity of any story depends on who’s telling the tale. But other times it pulls a viewer out of the movie, giving it momentary artificiality.
What no one can question is Eastwood’s choice of actors. Undoubtedly needing singing actors and those familiar with the show, he brought back John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway in 2005. (Three of the four leads come from various stage productions.)
The 38-year-old convincingly plays a man from his teens to induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and manages a terrific recreation of Valli’s dynamic falsetto vocal tones. He is the film’s steadying anchor, playing a level-headed (for the most part) guy, focused on his career once he determines he and group have what it takes.
As Tommy DeVito, a sidewalk punk connected to the local Jersey mafia, Vincent Piazza is like a young Bobby De Niro,volatile, hotheaded and street smart but socially dumb.
Erich Bergen plays the key musical figure, musician/songwriter Bob Gaudio, as a clean-cut, career-oriented guy. (The person who brings Gaudio to the group’s attention is none other than future film star Joe Pesci! Small world.)
The group under a variety of names struggles early on playing club dates in minor venues and enduring a year of slave labor as background singers — the equivalent of “room service” one remarks — to the savvy and (for that era) out-of-the-closet record producer and songwriter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle in an eye-catching performance).
Then one day — things just happen like that in this movie — Gaudio arrives late to rehearsal with a new song. They try it out, no rehearsal needed, and it’s “Sherry.” After that gets recorded, songs roll off the assembly line — “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Let’s Hang On,” “Walk Like a Man,” Rag Doll,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
The film has fun with the show-biz formula with gag inspirations such as an old movie suddenly supplying the title for “Big Girls Don’t Cry” or the group, currently called The Four Lovers, standing around wondering what their new name should be and abruptly a hotel light comes on at, yes, The Four Seasons Motel.
Well, I wasn’t there. Maybe it did happen that way.
Banging around through the tours, years and focusing primarily on the guys, the movie seriously loses track of its key women. Renée Marino has a terrific opening scene as the girl who catches Valli’s eye big time. Next thing you know they’re married and she’s the off-screen little woman at home.
She doesn’t return until she’s a roaring lush. That development deserves some screen time away from the all-boys club. Ditto that for Valli’s trouble daughter played by Freya Tingley. If you’re going to offer up tragedy, then you need to do work filling in the backstory.
Especially given the dragged-out emphasis on DeVito’s profligate ways that destroy the group and the petty quarrels among members and their producer.
Here you sense the writers fail to put distance between a successful stage play to reimagine it as a movie. For all the many locations and teeming cast of characters, this musical story remains stage bound, almost hemmed-in at times.
Christopher Walken has a winning performance as a local don who tries to straighten out the boys’ finances and tricky connections (unbeknown to all but DeVito) to loan sharks.
A grand finale brings everyone back together in younger days for a curtain-closing number that in this instance takes advantage of the movie’s embrace of the stage show.
Eastwood keeps a steady hand at the helm, focusing on story and character dynamics. While he has made music docs, his last musical bio was “Bird” (1988), a gripping though tough-to-take tale about jazz great Charlie Parker. Here he goes for a looser, less intense approach.
He seemingly embraces the backlot studio look in several street scene and Jersey neighborhoods. Among his usual crew, Tom Stern supplies the warm, period colors while editor Joel Cox, aided by Gary D. Roach, never let a sense of hurry intrude on the development of the story.
Who at Warners got the bright idea to release this picture in early summer against the bubblegum movies may doom “Jersey Boys” to a rough reception. This clearly needs a fall release as adult viewers more or less abandon the multiplexes as the weather and popcorn heat up.
According to Box Office Guru it brought in only in an estimated $13.5M from 2,905 venues.
But “Jersey Boys” should stand the greater test of time and become a standard musical-story. Not quite an out-and-out musical but one that lets its classic pop tunes carry the day.
Opens: June 20, 2014 (Warner Bros.)
Production companies: GK Films, Malpaso
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle, Renée Marino, Erica Piccinini, Joseph Russo, Donnie Kehr, Kathrine Narducci, Steven Schirripa
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriters: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Based on the musical play by: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Graham King, Rob Lorenz
Executive producers: Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Tim Moore, Tim Headington, Brett Ratner, James Packer, Steven Mnuchin
Director of photography: Tom Stern
Production designer: James J. Murakami
Song music, Bob Gaudio; lyrics, Bob Crewe
Costume designer: Deborah Hopper
Editors: Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach
R rating, 135 minutes