This rag doll walked like a man with Sherry into the theater and the movie started – oh, what a night! John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza and Academy Award winner Christopher Walken star in Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys.
Director – Clint Eastwood
Screenplay – Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Based on the musical Jersey Boys by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Producer – Graham King, Robert Lorenz & Clint Eastwood
Rated R for language throughout
In New Jersey, 1950’s, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) runs a band known as The Variety Trio with his brother Nick (Johnny Cannizzaro) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) when he discovers a young Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) and takes him under his wing. Frankie changes his last name to Valli, and both he and Tommy develop a good relationship with mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), who’s moved by Frankie’s voice and looks after both Frankie and Tommy.
When Tommy’s friend Joe Pesci (Joey Russo) – yes, that Joe Pesci – hooks them up with songwriter/keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), they hit it big as The Four Seasons, with Gaudio penning such hits as “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man”. Despite the fame and fortune brought to them through their music career, personal demons catch up and aim to get the best of them.
As far as music groups partly known for their vocal talent go, you had four big ones in the ’60s: The Beatles (representing the British), The Beach Boys (West Coast surfers) The Bee Gees (British-Aussie) and Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (Jersey greaseball guidos). “Walk Like a Man”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Sherry”, “Rag Doll” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)”, to name a few – The Four Seasons had a distinct vocal sound that was instantly recognizable thanks to Francesco Castelluccio, aka Frankie Valli, fronting the band. Based on the Broadway play of the same name that first opened in 2005, Jersey Boys follows the typical musician biopic formula of a star’s rise and fall and ultimate redemption, this time with Clint Eastwood at the helm.
As a musician myself, I’m always up for a band biopic. Slap “a film by Clint Eastwood” on the advertising and I’ll show up, money in hand, at the first showing. You might wonder what someone like Eastwood would want with a film like this. Some may not know that he’s actually quite an accomplished film composer that’s composed songs and scores for a number of his films. Eastwood knows music and at 84 clearly knows the era this takes place in. He delivers when it’s The Four Seasons performing. Those moments are the most energetic and lively of Jersey Boys. Where it falters is when the music stops playing.
It pains me to say this, but this is one of the most half-assed efforts from Clint Eastwood. Coming from a man that gave us The Outlaw Josey Wales, Unforgiven, Mystic River, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby and Pale Rider, among others, there’s no excuse for that. Even in films like Space Cowboys and Hereafter that I wasn’t particularly a fan of, there was still effort put into them that could be seen. The big problem Eastwood has here – aside from playing it way too safe, even for an R-rated film – is his indecisiveness in whether this film should be a musical or straightforward dramatic biopic.
At times, characters break the fourth wall (where the character looks directly at the audience and either acknowledges or addresses them), a technique commonly found on stage more than in film, and for good reason (yes, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off is a rare exception). Other campy moments feel like it would’ve felt much more at home within a musical such as the closing credits musical number the cast dances to, Bob Gaudio auditioning for the band and the other three joining in on the song like they’ve practiced it for years, or the band coming up with their name or a song idea. In a musical, they could get away with that, but since it mostly plays like a standard drama (the first 40-45 minutes are like Scorsese Lite) the results are more than cartoonish.
To be fair, Eastwood doesn’t deserve most of the blame, ’cause a good chunk of the fault should rest on the shoulders of screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who also wrote the stage play), who paint certain events of these characters that are supposedly key in broad strokes. Domestic problems between Frankie Valli and his wife (a great performance from Renee Marino) are barely touched on. As Frankie’s daughter grows up, out of nowhere we discover she’s been trying to get a music career going. Tommy DeVito’s debt problem has a little more focus than the other issues, but still only goes skin deep. Also, it’s kinda odd that for a band that was big during the ’60s, there’s barely any mention, if anything at all, about pivotal historical moments of that time or any other big musical acts from that era. How many know that The Four Seasons were able to get a #1 hit during the heyday of The Beatles? You wouldn’t know from watching this film.
By the way, I can forgive how anachronistic it is to have Valli singing “My Eyes Adored You” – a song he did in the ’70s – to his daughter during the ’60s. What can’t be overlooked, though, is that it becomes the theme between him and his daughter. Read the lyrics to the song if you wanna get an idea to how creepy that is.
That’s right. Next time you wanna tuck your little girl in at night to the tune of “Afternoon Delight”, just read the lyrics first.
If this film proved anything – other than just ’cause it’s a great Broadway show, doesn’t mean it’ll translate to the screen just as well – it’s that just ’cause you’re a great band, doesn’t mean you have a story deserving to be told onscreen. I love Lynyrd Skynyrd. They’re one of my favorite rock bands, yet other than the plane crash that killed three key members they don’t have a life story that would grab the viewer’s attention. We’ve seen biopics, over the past 10 years, based on musicians Ray Charles and Johnny Cash that showed in depth what drove those two and the personal demons that haunted them. I’m still waiting for a good biopic on The Beatles. Hell, you could do a feature-length film just on the pain in the ass they were to each other in making The White Album alone. Other than the great music that we get here, what else is there?
As for the cast, they don’t get much to work with considering the poor script. John Lloyd Young (reprising his role from Broadway version) does a fantastic job capturing Frankie Valli’s unique voice, but comes off stale and wooden once the music stops. Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda and Vincent Piazza all give solid performances as Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito, respectively. Piazza, in particular, curls the lips and chews the scenery in a stereotypical “Yo! Heys yous! It’s a Joooooorsey thang!” way. Christopher Walken really gets the short end of the stick with absolutely nothing here.
Given Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s poorly written script, which does no favors for its cast, this film should’ve been a lot worse that what it turned out to be, but Eastwood’s eye for detail does provide a pleasantly shot and colored backdrop of the ’50s and ’60s that salvages the film from being total crap. This, despite the fact that it still feels like he’s phoning his direction in. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was a great band. Clint Eastwood is a film icon, both in front of and behind the camera. Jersey Boys is just mediocre, nothing more and nothing less. As a music fan, a film fan, and an Eastwood fan, this is a disappointment all-around.
I give Jersey Boys a C- (★★).