In the Dark with Melanie Dishman: 'Jersey Boys'
A great story wrapped in a plain brown wrapper is what you’ll get with Clint Eastwood’s film version of the great Broadway hit of “Jersey Boys.” The jukebox musical based on the lives of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons interweaves their greatest hits with the highs and lows of the group members. Along the way, it won multiple Tonys and is still playing to packed houses on Broadway and the many road tours traveling the country.
Either of those venues is preferable to this new film version. I suspect the fault lies with Eastwood, who takes the same approach to adapting a Broadway musical that he does with a film like “Mystic River.” The two couldn’t be further apart, yet Eastwood uses the same muted color tones and cool cinematography that have become his trademark, along with a laid-back directing style that is just not suited to bring a musical to the screen.
The result is a clunky attempt to stage some of pop music’s greatest hits along with the dramatic scenes that form the story of how the group came to together only to be torn apart by misdeeds and jealousy. Eastwood favors a straight approach that has the characters breaking into song and then glossing over the group’s trials and achievements in short scenes that barely pause long enough to register. Frankie gets discovered by his friend. Frankie gets married. The Four Seasons sign a contract. It’s the Cliff Notes version to a compelling story that deserves better.
For his cast, Eastwood plucked Tony-winner John Lloyd Young to play Frankie Valli, and his falsetto is up to the task, but Mr. Young is in his late 30s and that makes it a bit weird to see him playing a 16-year old Frankie who gets his first break singing in his friend’s band. The rest of the group, with the exception of Vincent Piazza who plays Tommy DeVito, the group’s troublemaker, was cast from road shows including Michael Lamenda as Nick Massi and Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, the fourth member added to the group and who, along with Bob Crewe, the flamboyantly gay record producer played with brio by Mike Doyle, wrote some of the group’s most famous hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.” Christopher Walken plays an old mobster from the ‘hood that loves Frankie and his voice and who serves as a quasi surrogate father figure who steps in when the boys need him. It’s Gyp who brokers the deal with Tommy’s loan sharks after he embezzles from the group’s tax account to pay his gambling debts.
It isn’t until almost the end of the movie that things start to shake loose. The staging of “December ‘63 (Oh What a Night)” and Frankie’s comeback solo hit “I Love You Baby” come off better than some of the earlier more stilted scenes but it’s too little too late. There’s no good reason why “Jersey Boys” shouldn’t have translated well to a film. The story is something even Hollywood couldn’t make up and that iconic pop music can still get you off your feet dancing and clapping.
For that kind of experience, you’ll need to see the live version of “Jersey Boys.” Otherwise, keep your seat and enjoy Mr. Eastwood’s version.