Music Fans Should Adore Eastwood's "Jersey Boys"

Clint Eastwood and “Jersey Boys” are an unlikely match on paper, the vintage Broadway pizzazz of the latter seemingly at odds with the unfussiness of an increasingly stodgy filmmaker. But it ends up a sneakily smart partnership, the director’s unheralded musical know-how melding nicely with an accessible story filled with accessible music. Fans of the musical – and there are millions – might be taken aback by Eastwood’s understated approach to the material, but as the show is still on Broadway – and still touring the country – there’s no reason to rehash it on screen.

No, the film version of “Jersey Boys” is its own thing, abstaining from the usual movie-musical conceit of characters breaking into song. In its place is the skeletal system of a biopic – think “Ray” or “Walk The Line” – with the film’s musical moments coming exclusively in the form of songwriting and recording sessions and live performances. By stripping their own musical book of its spontaneity, writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have made the film less jubilant but more immersive, suggesting – if not fully mining – a depth that few movie-musicals have attempted.

“Jersey Boys” begins in 1954 as the lives of two young Garden Staters intersect irrevocably. Baby-faced and angel-voiced 16 year-old Francesco Castelluccio is running with the proverbial wrong crowd, led by low-level thief and part time musician Tommy DeVito. As 6 years Frankie’s senior, Tommy is older and wiser but more fully entrenched between a life of crime and a life of music – par for the course, according to the character’s self-aware narration. Once he and his best friend, Nick Massi, find themselves out of prison at the same time – a rare occurrence – they make an honest attempt at getting a band together. Anchored by the young kid with the dynamite falsetto – stage name: Frankie Valli – they’re off and running.

Eastwood’s decision to give life to three of the Four Seasons via actors who played the roles on stage mostly pays off. John Lloyd Young is a terrific singer and a ringer for Valli, while Erich Bergen is vacantly charming as Bob Gaudio, the All-American songwriting muscle behind the group. It’s his pop gem “Sherry” that quickly vaults the quartet to superstardom. Michael Lomenda is amusing as Massi, the coolly disarming bass player-vocalist, giving the film some much-needed comic relief in its latter stages. The stage actors’ comfortability with their roles regularly clues them into the pockets of cliché within the story, allowing them to add color to the moments that need it the most.

Yet, it’s the actor with no previous “Jersey Boys” experience that rises above the rest of the cast. Vincent Piazza (HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) makes for a beguiling Tommy Devito, expertly embodying the character’s mischievous spirit and misplaced talent. The film is at its best when Piazza is onscreen and he attunes himself wonderfully to his castmates. Their chemistry suggests that they originated the roles together – when, in fact, none of them ever performed in the same production – with Piazza as their unlikely ringleader, personifying the group’s New Jersey roots to a T.

Regrettably, Tommy’s dominance within the narrative combined with Piazza’s charisma paints Valli into the background for much of the picture. And while John Lloyd Young won a Tony Award for his stage version of the character, he doesn’t have the screen presence to power Valli through the non-musical portions of the film. When Tommy exits the story in its third act, Frankie hasn’t become interesting enough outside of his stage persona to carry the film, leaving “Jersey Boys” to peter out rather than peaking. A latter-day performance of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” is strangely flat, as is the group’s eventual reunion – until each character gets one final monologue that’s as bewildering as it is endearing.

By maintaining some of the show’s stage-isms – particularly, the aforementioned fourth wall-breaking narration – Eastwood keeps things frothy enough to assuage the story’s frequent heartbreak. Moreoever, the pic’s one bona fide musical sequence – which happens over its end credits – is a fascinating alternate vision for the film, showing how a more faithful adaptation of the musical could have (or couldn’t have) worked. It’s a strange, bold move from Eastwood, opening himself up to further criticism, but it’s a fitting symbol of his passion for the both the material and the medium.

“Jersey Boys” is an esoteric work in a multitude of ways – as is any that so ineffectually uses Christopher Walken, here as a mob boss with limited screen time – but its impact is in its incongruity. Unlike so many music-based films, it plays like a filmmaker’s vision seen through to the end, to hell with test screenings and studio interference. And whether or not viewers respond to Eastwood’s vision, that it’s so clearly his is a victory in itself. It’s not often that audiences get to see a red-hot commodity like “Jersey Boys” filtered through the mind of one person, but this is one of those moments. And it’s unreservedly worthwhile for admirers of both film and music.

-J. Olson

Rating: ★★★ 1/2 out of ★★★★★ (Good)

Release Date: June 20, 2014
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Christopher Walken
MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout)