Jersey Boys is an intelligent and methodical look at the rise and fall of well loved pop group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. The film is based on the Tony Award winning jukebox musical of the same name and, by the sounds of it, sticks pretty close to the source. The show’s creators Marshall Brickman – who co-wrote several Woody Allen movies in the 70s – and Rick Elice are the brains behind this project too, along with business-minded Four Season’s keyboardist and writer Bob Gaudio, who instigated the initial development. The legend himself, Clint Eastwood, making technically his first foray into musical directing, brings his typically slow style to this adaptation which tips its hat to gangster films and documentary form. The film brought on many cast and crew involved with the show’s creation and various runs since, so there was a wealth of experience to work with. The story itself is a stranger-than-fiction journey that will probably even surprise Four Seasons fans, starting with small time criminality, rising to number one singles, and almost ending in bankruptcy. One thing’s for sure: these Jersey boys had a great work ethic.
Following the lead of the stage show, Jersey Boys is constructed like a dramatised documentary, and the technique works fairly well. The drama plays out as if through a series of correlating interviews, with each of the Four Seasons providing some to-camera narration. As Elice describes it, the story develops with each member leading a particular season in the band’s history – from the excitement of spring to the depression of winter. This style, while slightly jarring at first, finds its place as the narrative goes on, and ultimately makes a lot of sense. Some of the characters fade away by the end, but that reflects reality, as the group fractures to the point where it’s just Gaudio and esteemed pop producer Bob Crewe writing solo material for Valli. The hardships of touring life and raising families create immense stress, particularly when coupled with the ties to organised crime. It’s a story of similar nature to Frank Sinatra’s, a reference made multiple times, and definitely interesting. The one departure Eastwood has made from the stage show is to include a finale number at the end, bringing back all the characters for a joyous song and dance. On paper it sounds lame, although it really captures an element of stage musical production that gives a loving nod to the source, and the genre as a whole.
For the cast, Eastwood has selected almost exclusively performers from the stage productions. This has brought a lot to the production, as it means the actors already knew what they were doing, and had a proven ability to play and sing like their characters. It also means there are few famous faces obscuring the drama on screen. However, it was also a little brave, considering the talent had much less experience acting to cameras than others may have had. Fortunately, they all seem to have managed pretty well, and the musical numbers have added authenticity, something Eastwood would have strived for. John Lloyd Young portrays Valli as an honourable and respectable man with the voice of an angel, Michael Lomenda has a blast with the highs and lows of bassist Nick Massi, and Erich Bergen is the aloof genius Gaudio. Mike Doyle is quite brilliant as producer Crewe too, although the man was apparently much less flamboyant in reality. Then there is the exception of television actor Vincent Piazza, who draws instead on his experience in Boardwalk Empire and The Sopranos and does a remarkable job playing black sheep of the family, Tommy DeVito. Also on that side of the fence is Cristopher Walken, who is at once magnetic and unobtrusive, playing the godfather type, Gyp DeCarlo.
Jersey Boys is an impressive film with great elements to work with, particularly the story, which is captivating. Eastwood has done a great job balancing musical elements with the unconventional documentary stylings to good effect, although it may play out a little slowly for some. You barely notice that you’re a musical until the uplifting end number, and I mean that in a good way.