Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood’s jukebox musical

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Almost everyone I know with living parents has gotten the phone call where Mom asks, “Have you seen The Jersey Boys? Your father and I went last night, and we loved it.”

If you’re a fan of harmonic 1960s pop, or cars with fins, Jersey Boys will provide a nice evening out at the movies. It’s nice. It’s entertaining. It’s pleasant. It’s all the positive adjectives that mean “not terrible, but ultimately negligible.”

Clint Eastwood directs the film adaptation of the global stage hit, and the movie fulfills the duties of a jukebox musical: it works in the hits, and it casts singers who make those hits sound virtually identical to the original versions. What the movie doesn’t do is answer the question, “Why did I just spend 134 minutes watching the Frankie Valli episode of Behind the Music?”

It doesn’t help that the rougher edges of the story are sanded down whenever possible: We’re informed immediately by group founder Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) that he and Frankie (John Lloyd Young) had mob ties, although it’s really Tommy who’s more connected, since he’s an errand boy for local made man Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).

Tommy is the driving force behind the band, but he’s also a hothead who gets deeply into debt with loansharks when he’s not going to jail for petty offenses. There are actors out there who could effectively portray a genuine menace while also singing four-part harmony, but Piazza isn’t one of them. He’s credible as a musician, but never as threatening as Norm Waxman (Donnie Kehr), Tommy’s loanshark. The film’s other mobsters, Walken included, come off innocuously, as if to say, “Hey, these guys had mob ties, but not, you know, the bad kind.”

The trajectory of the Four Seasons is one we know from a million rock biopics—the struggle to get signed, early success, infighting, familial strife, bridge, chorus. Screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, adapting their book of the stage musical, keep things moving along, even interjecting odd humor at places, but they wage an uphill battle against genre conventions.

Sometimes the clichés are knowingly funny, like when the group gets its name from the neon advertisement for a bowling alley, and someone says, “It’s a sign!” But then you get songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) watching Ace in the Hole on TV with lyricist-producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle); when Kirk Douglas slaps Jan Sterling in the Billy Wilder movie, Crewe comments, “Big girls don’t cry,” and Eastwood does everything but insert a lightbulb going off over Gaudio’s head.

The performances are mostly engaging, from Walken’s laid-back Mafioso to Young’s earnest Valli to Doyle’s showy turn as the openly gay Crewe, in a performance that resides perilously on the border (without tipping over) between flamboyantly tongue-in-cheek and ridiculously caricatured.

The hits—including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” among many others—inject some dazzle into the proceedings, and they’re mostly presented as performance pieces when the band is touring, recording, or appearing on The Ed Sullivan Show.

The one attempt to work a song into the plot falls flat; Valli sings “My Eyes Adored You” to his young daughter Francine, and the song is reprised later as the theme to their fractured relationship. It’s forgivable that the tune pops up in the 1960s (even though it wasn’t released until 1975), but a song about a childhood crush sounds creepy when it’s a dad singing it to his child, particularly since they leave in the “Though I never laid a hand on you” line. One would have assumed you didn’t.

There’s an airlessness about Jersey Boys, mainly in that Eastwood and the writers never seem particularly interested in reflecting the group against the context of their times. We never hear about the decade’s controversies or newsworthy incidents, or the other groups competing against the Four Seasons for pop supremacy, or anything else outside of the bubble of their lives. As such, the movie never really makes a case for the Four Seasons being important enough to merit big-screen treatment in the first place.

Not that this historical vacuum has kept the show from filling theaters from Broadway to Vegas and beyond, nor will it keep its core audience from a nice, pleasant, entertaining time at the movies. Those more inclined to think of the Four Seasons as a Vivaldi piece or a luxury hotel chain may remain unconvinced.

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