Clint Eastwood adapts the hit stage show about the formation of The Four Seasons, the famous 1960s pop band from New Jersey fronted by singer Frankie Valli.
If you know nothing about the original 1960s boy band The Four Seasons, then one of the pleasures (or pains) of this musical biopic will be in discovering how many of their songs you know off by heart. From ‘Sherry’ to ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’ and ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’, the catchy jukebox classics, with their inane, lovey-dovey lyrics, are still in constant replay, boosted by the incredible ongoing success of the Jersey Boys Broadway musical, the 13th longest running in history.
"It’s an old story, this narrative about the price of success, and Jersey Boys doesn’t bring anything new to it"
This screen adaptation, directed by Clint Eastwood, apparently follows the Broadway version closely, boasting a screenplay by the show’s original writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and featuring three lead actors who have performed in the stage versions. These include John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, the little Italian American lead singer from the wrong side of the tracks. When he warbles, with his belligerent falsetto tenor, it’s a blast from the past – a voice that modern listeners can only love in retro-mode. But the 38-year-old actor gives it his all, playing Frankie with gusto from his teens through to late middle age (albeit with laughably bad ageing makeup).
The story begins with the band’s origins as teenage delinquents in working-class Jersey in the early 1950s, where, as we’re told in voiceover: “There were three ways out of the neighbourhood: you join the army and maybe get killed; you get mobbed up, maybe get killed that way… or you get famous. For us, it was two out of three.” The closest ties to the mob come through the thuggish Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who has links to Mafia godfather Gyp DeCarlo (a fun, lizard-like performance from Christopher Walken).
It’s Tommy’s dumb bravado that yanks Frankie into the spotlight and onto the stage – a favour that will never be forgotten. They’re joined by fellow Jersey native, bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The band only gels when an outsider joins them – the smooth musician and already successful songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen, who’s a joy to watch). Gaudio introduces them to flamboyant record producer and songwriter Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), and after some necessary years in backup-singer hell, the hits start coming thick and fast. Then there’s the fame, the groupies, the parade of hotel rooms. Tour exhaustion sets in and tensions and money problems rise within the band. Back home, marriages break down and kids go off the rails. You know the plot.
It’s an old story, this narrative about the price of success, and Jersey Boys doesn’t bring anything new to it. The film purports to show us the man behind the Frankie Valli voice – and the band behind the hits – but it turns out neither the songs nor the singers are really very deep, at least in this version. Perhaps the fact that Valli and Gaudio are producers of the film is to blame for the surface-level insight we get here, especially when it comes to depicting the female characters, particularly Valli’s troubled first marriage to sexy spitfire Mary Delgado (Renée Marino) and his doomed teenage daughter Francine (Freya Tingley).
Still, there’s fun to be had, especially in the band’s early years and rise to fame, and the film rarely drags. Eastwood’s direction is clean and simple, maintaining the focus on the four singers and their chemistry. Some will long for more of the song and dance energy of the musical, but this could have backfired spectacularly and Eastwood was never the director to bring that. Making it clear he’s not out to do a traditional musical, he gathers together a creative team of unflashy long-time collaborators who’ve worked on his past projects: DOP Tom Stern (Changeling), production designer James J. Murakami (Gran Torino), editor Joel Cox (Unforgiven) and costume designer Deborah Hopper (Mystic River). The look of the film is slightly faded, the colours desaturated to take us into a past that is remembered by characters who often break the fourth wall to give their point of view direct to the audience. The almost fake-looking settings boast their backlot origins, but never enough to evoke the kitsch exuberance of a true musical. What we’re left with is the impression of a likable and competent biopic entertainment, but not a memorable one.