Thursday, June 19, 2014
Review: "Jersey Boys"
A lot of these Broadway nostalgia acts are what they call "jukebox musicals" -- they're colorful and bright, and the story is just a flimsy excuse to string together performances of golden oldies to please the blue-haired set. They can be good or bad, but there's an inescapable cynicism about them. They feel like live versions of greatest hits compilations.
"Jersey Boys" the stage show reputedly falls into this category -- I haven't seen it, so I can't say for certain -- but the film adaptation directed by Clint Eastwood mostly rises above it.
This is a darker and more ambitious version of the usual showbiz biopic. Eastwood and screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who also wrote the musical book for the stage version) try to get at what brings a great pop group together, and what pries them apart. For them, the answer is right in the title: the pride, fear, braggadocio, family bonds and skewed sense of honor that drive working-class Italians from Jersey.
Before the Beatles invaded these shores, The Four Seasons were America's biggest musical act. Their smooth sound, buoyed by the crystal falsetto of Frankie Valli, connected the music of the Greatest Generation to that of the Baby Boomers. They used the old-timey standard of the barbershop quartet and layered in the increasingly sophisticated production and rhythms of rock 'n' roll.
The story starts out with a bit of a "Goodfellas" feel, with a teenage Valli running with a bad crowd of musician-thugs, who boost safes and other jobs when gigs dry up. There's even a local mafia don, Gyp DeCarlo (a sly Christopher Walken), who receives patronage and dispenses favors because he adores Valli's voice.
John Lloyd Young, who played the role of Valli during the initial Broadway run nearly a decade ago and won a Tony for his efforts, reprises the performance. He assuredly hits the high notes during the songs, though he's a little flat during some other scenes.
(There's some good makeup effects late in the movie to depict an older Valli, though their best efforts come during the early part. Young convincingly plays a 16-year-old, despite that he's pushing 40 in real life.)
The stage version was broken up into four acts, with each narrated by a different member of The Four Seasons. The film adaptation borrows but tweaks this storytelling device, with Valli remaining at the center of the tale while others give their interpretation of events.
Vincent Piazza is terrific and confident as Tommy DeVito, the swaggering leader of the group. A street hustler by trade and disposition, he's always running a side game or trying to whip the other guys into line. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is the self-described "Ringo" of the group, going along to get along while the getting is good.
Erich Bergen plays Bob Gaudio, the songwriter and brains behind the outfit. A WASP-y type from outside the rough-and-tumble neighborhood, he's brought into the group over the protests of Tommy. His resentments are soon founded, as Bob and Frankie become artistic twins.
Some other subplots, mostly involving Frankie's rocky home life and marriage to an alcoholic wife (Renée Marino), feel short-shrifted and obligatory.
Of course, one of the main enjoyments of the film is listening to the fantastic music of The Four Seasons -- including iconic hits like "Rag Doll," "Sherry, "Big Girls Don't Cry" and also some tunes that didn't become hits in the States, like "My Eyes Adored You."
I always marveled at how The Four Seasons could sing such high notes and still sound entirely masculine. Young does a fairly spot-on imitation of Valli's distinctive timbre.
I also admired that Eastwood made the choice to include performances of entire songs, rather than the usual thing where they start the first two stanzas, maybe get to the bridge, and then cut away into montage mode. The director also makes the clever choice of repeatedly focusing his camera on audiences' reactions to the music of The Four Seasons -- not just a wave of bodies, but close-ups of individual faces uplifted and transported.
"Jersey Boys" is still something of a pastiche about these characters rather than a deep exploration of them. The heart of the story is really about the relationship between Frankie and Tommy, a combination of fierce love and big-brother resentment that neither can ever entirely overcome. Sometimes this gets lost in the songs, but it's a pretty nice sound garden to wander around in.