"You think Frankie woulda cut Tommy loose right then. If that's what you think, you're not from Jersey."
The musical Jersey Boys is what has commonly come to be known as a jukebox musical, meaning that none of the songs are originals, they're all from the same songwriters, group, etc. and there's a story thrown in for good measure to tide the audience over between numbers. As reductive as that label has become, it's actually a very apropos description for this particular show since the jukebox was more or less the pivotal music delivery device of the time. Translating the show to film seemed like a no-brainer, considering its popularity, but the choice of Clint Eastwood as director seemed strange to say the least. So would the film do the show justice, or would it the latest victim of lackluster musical to film translations? Read on to find out...
The film opens in Belleville, New Jersey in 1951, where small time hood Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) works for crime boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Tommy spends his nights performing with his brother and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) as The Variety Trio. Tommy's best friend is Frankie Castellucio (John Lloyd Young), a hairdresser's apprentice with a great singing voice. When Tommy gets pinched and sent to prison, he encourages Nick to cultivate Frankie's talent and give him singing lessons. Frankie's talent and confidence grow just in time for Tommy to get out of the clink, and Nick to go in. Tommy invites Frankie to join the group in Nick's absence, and very quickly he makes Frankie the lead singer.
The only problem is that trios have become passé, and the band will need a fourth member to become a marketable group. Tommy's friend Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo) tells him about a friend of his that just wrote the hit song "Short Shorts" for The Royal Teens, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Gaudio impresses Frankie with his songwriting, and after some negotiating, is invited to join the band. Frankie and Bob have a drive that Tommy doesn't seem to have, and they soon land a deal with a record producer named Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) who loves Frankie's voice, but relegates them to a backup role. After a year of schlepping in this capacity, they finally get the money together to pay for the studio and record a demo Gaudio's written called "Sherry." Frankie changes his last name to Valli, the group changes their name to The Four Seasons, and the rest is history.
Jersey Boys is not a film for everyone, but those who connect with it will connect with it a very strong way. The thing that is most interesting about the film is the artificiality of it all. Eastwood revels in shooting most everything on a set on a studio backlot to anchor the film in the style of the films made during the time period in which it is set. It's a bold move that paid of handsomely, but the total artifice of it all will be a major turn-off for most audience members. Everything about the film feels fake, from the wigs and costumes, to the rear projection during driving scenes, and just about everything in between. It's not afraid to feel like a film, which is something that most modern audiences reject at first sight, but those of us who appreciate theatricality in film will adore the film. It will also play like gangbusters to the over fifty set who are more than a little nostalgic for the time period and music, a generation raised, like Eastwood, on movie made on backlots with a ton of glitz and glamour, all of which is very knowingly false.
Several things about the film really work well, namely the way that Eastwood handles the story's multiple narrators. Direct address to the camera opens the film, and is ever-present from that point on, but it's a fantastic way of bringing the audience into the world of these characters. It's a very Jersey movie, which shouldn't be all that surprising, but anyone that was raised in and around the Italian households of New Jersey will instantly recognize the glaring stereotypical flourishes such as a clock in Frankie's parent's home flanked by pictures of the Pope and Frank Sinatra. In other words, this movie couldn't be more New Jersey if it called you a stunad and popped you right in the balls.
Having said all that, the film is a mess, but what a glorious mess it is. The domestic drama, particularly between Frankie and his wife Mary (Renée Marino) is needlessly melodramatic, but it's pitched to the rafters and ends up feeling of a piece with the entire film. There are also large sections of the film, sometimes twenty minutes at a time, when there's no music in the film, and that should be a death sentence for a musical, but the film never lags, and always continues moving forward, even when it takes a substantial step backward in the narrative a little past the midway point of the film. It also helps that the bulk of the film is set before the band becomes famous. Too often in these biopics, there is a rush to get to the stardom and excess of it all, but this film knows that it's bread is buttered under the streetlights on those Jersey street corners, and gives the film a uniqueness not present in most other jukebox musicals.
The film's biggest revelation by a mile is Vincent Piazza as Tommy. The New York born actor is a force of nature, completely at home in the world of the film and in Tommy's shoes. The way he carries himself, the way he talks to the other characters, as well as the audience, with an air of being above everyone else, makes him a marvel to behold, and were he not such a strong center for the film, it might have failed entirely. Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Nicky are also fantastic, perfectly inhabiting their characters and keeping things moving forward at all times, despite some absolutely preposterous facial hair on Bergen for the entire second half of the film. Walken is also fantastic, as to be expected, getting a chance to do his Walken thing without being a distraction.
As for John Lloyd Young, he looks like Frankie and sounds like Frankie, and that's just about good enough. He doesn't feel at home in front of a camera, and seems to be holding back too much at times, afraid to go too far over the top, but it's almost always to his detriment. He is very good, but anytime he's not singing, he looks lost. The script by the show's book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice blurs enough of the lines between fantasy and reality to be considered strong without crossing over into great. The details they skirt or condense will be lost on anyone not intimately familiar with the history of The Four Seasons, but that's okay because they keep things brisk and light all the way through.
If it's said once, it's worth saying a dozen times, Jersey Boys is not a film for everyone, but those who connect with it will cherish it, warts and all. It's not without its flaws, but its flaws make it so lovable and enjoyable. It seems like a cop-out to say this but this is a very specific film made for a very specific audience, and those that don't fall into that category will likely find very little, if anything, to enjoy about it. This is an old-fashioned yarn spun by a director who knows a thing or two about the good old days, and this is a perfect way to recapture them, by simply pointing out that all the things people love about this time period were as artificial as they accuse today's films and music of being. It's an interesting thesis, and one I didn't expect to find in a film like Jersey Boys, but I'm glad it's there, no matter how many layers of artifice are covering it up.
GO Rating: 4.5/5
[Images via BoxOfficeMojo]