When discussing what might fill this page with my editor, I told her that Clint Eastwood’s 33rd movie behind the camera might not be the best film opening this week; nor does it have the benefit of recognizable names filling out its lead roles. What it does offer—as a big-screen adaptation of a long-running, Tony-winning musical—is exactly the kind of middle-of-the-road entertainment that your parents will love.
“Funny,” my editor said, “my parents were just talking to me about how they want to see Jersey Boys!”
And while the 84-year-old legend’s latest movie is a hit-or-miss affair, you (or at least your parents) might not want to miss hearing hits made popular by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The pop quartet’s rise and fall (and rise again) is dramatized in a far more naturalistic fashion than you might expect from a filmed version of a Broadway musical—certainly not one that uses the original musical book as the foundation of its screenplay. This isn’t one of those razzle-dazzle affairs with rapid-fire editing, like Rob Marshall’s Chicago. Characters don’t spontaneously burst into song, dancing across the screen in a flurry of motion.
Instead, Eastwood favors a more realistic approach, where songs like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” are presented as live performances when the band is touring, recording or appearing on American Bandstand or The Ed Sullivan Show.
And although the names of most of the actors onscreen are unfamiliar, three of the Four Seasons were cherry-picked by Eastwood, The Man with No Name himself, after he watched them perform their roles on stage, catching productions in Las Vegas, San Francisco and New York.
For Valli, the group’s legendary lead singer, Eastwood cast John Lloyd Young, the 38-year-old actor who won a Tony when he originated the role on Broadway nine years ago; fortuitously, Young had returned for a limited Broadway engagement when Eastwood visited. And while he may not sound exactly like Valli, Young still has a mean falsetto.
For Nick Massi, vocal arranger and bass guitarist for the group, Eastwood chose Canadian actor Michael Lomenda, who performed the role in the first national tour and makes an assured film debut here.
Bob Gaudio, the business-savvy member of the group, is played by another veteran of the first national tour, Erich Bergen. The native New Yorker has also performed in the Las Vegas and Los Angeles productions, portraying the role for more than three years. Ironically, he had been passed over for the role in an earlier, aborted incarnation of the film that was to be directed by Jon Favreau. “They didn’t think I was quite right for the part,” the actor deadpanned a few weeks back, during a New York press conference for the film.
“You’ve got people who’ve done 1,200 performances,” said a bearded Eastwood at the same press event. “How much better can you know a character?”
Eastwood, however, did look beyond the stage for one founding member of the Four Seasons. Vincent Piazza, best known as Lucky Luciano on HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, plays Tommy DeVito, the driving force behind the band and the first member we see onscreen.
As an instrumental version of “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night)” plays on the soundtrack, Tommy crosses a street in Belleville, New Jersey, approaches the camera and begins speaking directly to the audience, informing us that “There were three ways out of the neighborhood: You join the Army and maybe get killed; you get mobbed up, maybe get killed that way… or you get famous. For us, it was two out of three.”
OK, so while characters might not sing any dialogue, a number of them do address us from time to time. Does it work? Your parents might think so, but… Eastwood’s not exactly Martin Scorsese.
It’s unfortunate to see him immediately introduce local made man Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), who takes a shine to a 16-year-old, pre-“Valli” Frankie Castelluccio. Meanwhile, Tommy runs errands for Gyp—when he and Nick aren’t getting tossed into jail for petty crime. This aspect of the film is toothless, and these and other dark edges rarely work.
Group infighting, financial problems and domestic dramas all pile up predictably, until you wish the Four Seasons would stop turning to speak to us and just sing.
In the end, Walken actually gets to do a little soft-shoe, along with the rest of the cast, who finally bow to Jersey Boys’ stage origins during what amounts to a closing credits curtain call on a Warner Bros. backlot street set, as everyone sings and dances to a reprise of “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night).”
It’s a perfectly pleasant, innocuous way to end the film. Your parents will love it.
Jersey Boys *** 1/2
Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Mike Doyle, Renée Marino, Erica Piccininni, Joseph Russo and Christopher Walken. Screenplay and musical book by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Directed by Clint Eastwood. At Boston Common, Fenway and in the suburbs.