It’s a quality film – albeit one that doesn’t explore enough new ground (in the story or the musical film medium) to excite casual moviegoers looking for a fresh song and dance drama experience.
In Jersey Boys, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is a rabble-rousing teenager, errand boy for the Italian mob, and a talented singer. Under the instruction of fellow neighborhood performers Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), Frankie learns to hone his unique falsetto – supplementing his hairdresser day job with money from evening performance gigs as part of various pop music groups (all formed by Tommy and Nick). Eager to take their music to the next level and expand their reach, the guys recruit the help of singer/songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). The guys settle on a name, The Four Seasons, and catch the attention of producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) – who sets the group on a path to one hit record after another.
However, as The Four Seasons become increasingly popular across the country, the pressures of success begin to take their toll. The fan-favorite performers face challenges at home and on the road, along with jealousy, frustration, and suspicion within the group. Despite their struggles, The Four Seasons carry on – until one member gets in over his head in debt, creating a liability that threatens to tear the hit music act apart.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, Jersey Boys was adapted to screenplay form by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice - the same writers responsible for the film’s Broadway musical source material. On the stage, Jersey Boys racked up critical acclaim with Tony, Grammy, Drama Desk, as well as Laurence Olivier Award wins; while the big screen version is an enjoyable Hollywood adaptation, Eastwood’s movie does little to enhance the story through the film medium. Four Seasons fans will find solid cinematography and performances, but the movie is an otherwise straightforward stage-to-screen transfer – one that is over-polished and lacking in the raw energy that makes its musical counterpart so enchanting.
Jersey Boys retains the musical’s four-act structure, chronicling the ups and downs of The Four Seasons’ run – intermixed with Jackie Valli’s struggle to balance family with a touring celebrity career. The result is a cliff-noted version of history and relationships that, often, prioritizes events (the what happened) without really digging into each of the respective group members beyond surface level motivations (the why it happened) . The narrative approach works fine in a Broadway musical, where the focus is on live vocal performances, but moviegoers that expect in-depth character studies in a period-piece drama might find that the story moves a little too fast to develop most members of the Four Seasons beyond basic outlines.
Still, there’s enough character development to stitch the story (and musical segments) together – while also covering a wide expanse of time, changing group dynamics, and iconic songs. Eastwood makes smart use of the Jersey Boys musical format – building anticipation for several recognizable Four Seasons tracks with mini-inspiration stories (most notably “Big Girls Don’t Cry”). Unlike Les Miserables (in which the vocal tracks were recorded live on set), Jersey Boys takes the Rock of Ages approach to musical numbers – with the actors providing dubbed vocal tracks separate from their onscreen performance (though they did sing live during filming, in order to maintain the look of authenticity).
As a result, the musical numbers are a mix of genuinely exciting and toe-tapping set pieces interspersed with uninspired recreations of notable Four Seasons TV appearances. Scenes that feature the guys harmonizing in a studio or composing songs on the fly in a hotel bar manage to capture the thrill of musical theater – while other sequences come across as basic big screen imitation (not inspired film adaptation).
Still, given the unique sound of the original Four Seasons, many viewers will enjoy seeing the group’s copious roster of number one records performed on the big screen – especially whenever John Lloyd Young is in the spotlight. The actor played Valli in the original Jersey Boys musical and was recognized with several stage honors (including a Tony for best actor in a musical). Even without a live audience to feed off, Young nails Valli’s challenging falsetto – while also turning in sharp drama work as the fan-favorite singer. The movie doesn’t always maintain a steady depiction of Valli’s life, touching on key life changes without much development, but even when the film is pressed for time, Young ensures that Valli is genuine, empathetic, and masterful at the microphone.
Certain supporting players are given more to do than others – with Nick Massi (Lomenda) standing on the sideline for most of the film while Tommy DeVito (Piazza) and Bob Gaudio (Bergen) battle for control of the group. The friction, both overt and subtle fuels the narrative, and where Young takes center stage in the musical numbers, Piazza and Bergen provide several of the film’s most interesting moments of human drama. Additionally, Christopher Walken (as Gyp DeCarlo) and Kathrine Narducci (as Mary Rinaldi) provide entertaining takes on their musical counterparts – with Mike Doyle and Joey Russo stealing a number of scenes as Crewe and a young Joe Pesci, respectively.
Moviegoers who are expecting a behind-closed-doors look at the men of The Four Seasons may be underwhelmed by the story of Jersey Boys - while others who were hoping to see Eastwood innovate the musical source material with a fresh movie experience will find that the final film is simply a quality transfer from the live stage to the big screen. At times the focus is a bit mixed, especially as Valli’s experience begins to eclipse the Four Seasons, but even when the film stumbles, there are plenty of entertaining characters, quality performances, and enjoyable musical numbers to make Eastwood’s film worthwhile.
There are better movie musicals out there, and seeing Jersey Boys live on stage is still the definitive way to experience Brickman and Elice’s adaptation; nevertheless, Eastwood’s movie should offer plenty of enjoyment for musical lovers and Four Seasons fans. It’s a quality film – albeit one that doesn’t explore enough new ground (in the story or the musical film medium) to excite casual moviegoers looking for a fresh song and dance drama experience.
Jersey Boys runs 134 minutes and is Rated R for language throughout. Now playing in theaters.
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