Eastwood Takes a Fresh Approach with “Jersey Boys”
One would think that with over 30 films under his belt as a director that Clint Eastwood would be out of tricks. And yet, with his big screen adaptation of the Broadway smash Jersey Boys, he not only breaks new ground for himself – as this is the first musical he’s directed – but is also able to bring a new perspective to the genre and this story as well. Reimagining the play slightly, Eastwood is able to give us a more personalized point of view regarding the rise of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. While this approach pays dividends, that’s not to say that the movie is without its faults as far too many elements of the story are given the short shrift, ultimately giving the viewer a less than complete picture.
The film begins auspiciously in New Jersey in 1951, where young Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) makes his first public singing appearance at the request of his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who’s looking for talent to help his own music group get off the ground. He knows this kid from the neighborhood is special and does his best not only to nurture him but also make sure he doesn’t get away. DeVito’s groups come and go, musicians join, then drop out and it takes some time before the other two core members of what will become the Four Seasons are in place. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) ably fills the role as bass guitarist while Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) proves to be their secret weapon as he winds up writing a string of doo-wop classics that not only put the group on top but help to define a generation.
The most refreshing aspect of the film is that it’s told from DeVito, Gaudio and Massi’s respective points of view. Each takes a turn moving the story along by addressing the audience directly, giving us the basic historical facts of a given era while providing their own opinions of these happenings. This device provides the movie with an ever-growing sense of momentum that holds it in good stead as we see Castelluccio – now Valli – and his cohorts attempt to weather the ups and downs of the music business. Not only do they have to contend with the usual infighting that develops in this sort of group dynamic but also trouble with organized crime as it’s revealed that DeVito’s skills as business manager are shady at best.
Unlike a traditional musical, where say, a lovesick guy suddenly starts singing in the rain, the music here stems organically from the action on screen. Whether the group is working through a song or performing on stage, none of these numbers break the sense of reality the characters are in. That’s not to say that the film is without it’s share of corny Hollywood tropes (check out how the group gets its name) but there are too few to ruin the overall sense of “realism” Eastwood is attempting.
Of course, it goes without saying that the Four Seasons’ musical catalogue is on full display here and if there’s one criticism where it’s concerned it’s that not nearly enough of the songs are played. All of the big hits - Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, My Eyes Adored You – are given their due while only fragments of some of the others are heard. This is a testament to the depth of their legacy and if anything the film encourages the viewer to rediscover it.
The four principals were all chosen from various incarnations of the play with Lloyd Young having belonged to the original cast. They all accord themselves handsomely and each makes the transition to the screen without missing a step. And while Massi describes himself as the Ringo of the group, nothing could be further from the truth as all four prove sympathetic and engaging.
The film is not without its faults as far too little time is given to the women in these men’s lives particularly Valli’s wife Mary (Renee Marino) who comes off as little more than a plot device used to remind us that there they all have a life away from the road. Equally troubling is that Eastwood gives us little indication as to the passage of time so we often have no idea what year it is or where the group is in the course of their career. And yet, warts and all Jersey Boys is a film that’s incredibly entertaining, telling a familiar American success story – rags to riches with measures of tragedy, success and humor – in a way that grabs you and only lets you go until Frankie sings the last note.