On stage, “Jersey Boys” was less a conventional musical than a jukebox, a time machine for baby boomers. The joy came not from the plot or the characters (which were riddled with show-biz clichés) but rather from the nostalgic rush of hearing the falsetto-heavy hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons being performed live.
So how do you transfer that singular thrill to film?
You don’t. At least director Clint Eastwood hasn’t been able to.
We all know that movies are a liar’s game, that a musical number in a film has been pre-recorded, sonically sweetened and constructed from several individual performances cannily edited together. Even with the knowledge that we’re hearing the actual voice of John Lloyd Young, the stage actor who reprises his performance as lead singer Frankie Valli, I found it all… well, underwhelming.
Eastwood is a musician and composer and he has in his resume the ambitous “Bird,” a biopic about jazz legend Charlie Parker. But here he seems to have been hamstrung by a creative team drawn largely from the stage production and committed to not allowing too much divergence from what was seen on Broadway and in countless touring companies.
Scripted by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the stage musical, “Jersey Boys” is the story of four Italian American kids who rise from the mean streets around Newark to making hit record after hit record throughout the 1960s.
The elements are familiar. There are early brushes with the law (the opening hour feels like ersatz Scorsese), struggles to get gigs and a recording contract, the eventual triumph on the pop music charts followed by revelations of financial shenanigans, marital discord and personal tragedy, not to mention the debilitating effects of constant touring and personalities rubbed raw by too much proximity.
Eastwood has retained one of the stage musical’s signature elements by having the various characters address the audience directly. Normally this would be irritating in a film; in this case it’s about the only thing that gives the show any kind of edge.
The prime narrator is Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the hustling manager/guitarist of the band whose cocky, streetsmart attitude is invaluable in getting the Four Seasons up and running and disastrous once stardom has been achieved. Piazza nails the character’s swagger, ego, and bull-headedness…you may not particularly like Tommy, but he’s certainly watchable.
By comparison, Young’s Frankie (he won the Tony for originating the role on Broadway) feels soft and unformed. This is appropriate in the early scenes, where Frankie is an innocent easily led astray by his more seasoned companions. But in the latter going it leaves “Jersey Boys” without a dynamic central character. This Frankie Valli is boring.
At least until he opens his mouth and starts singing. Let’s admit up front that nobody has come close to matching the sound of the real Frankie Valli, who possessed pop music’s most soaring falsetto but also provided a bottom, a depth that anchored his performances and kept them from becoming a clownish novelty act. Young provides an acceptable simulacrum, but even so you know you’re not hearing the real thing.
Faring slightly better is Erich Bergen, also veteran of the stage production, who plays Bob Guadio, the group’s songwriter and keyboard player. This is a decidedly un-hip guy who turns out to be a musical genius, penning great tunes like “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Dawn,” “Rag Doll,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “Who Loves You” and “Oh What a Night.” His Guadio is a reassuring, solid presence in the midst of the band’s wild living but, again, nothing dynamic.
The group is rounded out by Michael Lomenda (a veteran of the Canadian company) as Nick Massi, a stolid fellow whose deep voice provides a counterpart to Valli’s stratospheric falsetto. He’s a virtual cypher until late in the proceedings when he quits the band in a torrent of recriminations.
Two supporting characters, in fact, pretty much steal the show. Christopher Walken is in his element as the local fixer Gyp DeCarlo, a Jersey powerbroker who isn’t actually a criminal but serves as a conduit between various elements to get things done.
And Mike Doyle is memorable as record producer Bob Crewe, who balances musical savvy with just the right dose of gay flamboyance.
There are some women in “Jersey Boys,” but they really don’t count.
The production nails the look of 1950s Jersey, the hair styles and fashions. But Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern (“Gran Torino,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Mystic River”) have opted for a color desaturated, monochromatic palette that gets more irritating as the story unfolds.