By Bill Wine
KYW Newsradio 1060
PHILADELPHIA (CBS) –The Four Seasons: their hit records helped create an indelible soundtrack for life in the ’60s.
Just for starters, there was “Sherry.” “Big Girls Don’t Cry.” “Walk Like a Man.” “Rag Doll.” “Bye Bye Baby.” “Let’s Hang On.” “Working My Way Back to You.” “I’ve Got You Under My Skin.”
If you were there, chances are one of those tunes is playing inside your head right now.
Jersey Boys, a jukebox-musical biography of the iconic rock group with their four-part harmony, is a movieization of the hit musical that opened in 2005 and became one of Broadway’s longest-running (nearly a decade) shows. It traces the rise, fall, and rise of the group, their triumphs and travails, while for the most part resisting the understandable temptation to bathe in nostalgia.
Like the documentary-style, Tony award-winning stage offering, the film (not a song-and-dance musical but essentially a play with music) keeps breaking the fourth wall and having characters directly address the audience to tell its tale of on-stage harmony and off-stage discord, tracing the group’s inauspicious beginnings in 1951 as “four guys under a street lamp,” harmonizing on working-class corners in Belleville, NJ, all the way to their eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame forty years later.
The group’s falsetto-featuring frontman, Frankie Valli, is portrayed by John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony Award in 2006 for his stage performance, while Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi round out the calendar.
The only big-screen name in the cast is Christopher Walken, who plays a local mob boss who takes a protective interest in them.
Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood (Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Bird, The Bridges of Madison County), whose musicality has been well established, stays remarkably faithful to the stage show, even maintaining the multi-narrator structure.
And while his style is more subdued and his pacing more relaxed than was the case with the snappy stage show (the film takes its time getting started as a musical), the director employs his trademark deliberate style to establish and maintain a strong sense of melancholia, highlighting tragic elements involving crime, sex, marriage, and money that upbeat songs can only distract from, not make disappear.
Eastwood also had his singers perform the numbers live rather than pre-taping, as is so often the case with movie musicals, using the irresistible Four Seasons songbook –- music by Bob Gaudio, lyrics by Bob Crewe — to energize the film, just as it did the stage show.
And the songs sound uncannily like the originals.
And Eastwood’s use of relative unknowns (to movie audiences, anyway) as the group’s members makes it somewhat easier to accept them early on as struggling performers.
The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise, who have adapted their stage book, stays pretty much with the same approach, tweaking here and there and delving a bit deeper but not really revamping.
As they did with the stage version, they pretty much ignore historical context, leaving the up-close-and-personal group in somewhat of a vacuum so that the material seems almost timeless. This could be seen as a failing, but it’s also a justifiable approach to the material that doesn’t make the film any less enjoyable.
Ultimately, and as the closing-credits production number makes clear, it’s a celebration of music: their music, our music, any music.
So let’s hang on to 3 stars out of 4 for Jersey Boys, an earnestly energetic, surprisingly somber, and largely likable musical biodrama.