It has been well documented on this blog over the years that, to quote a previous article, “I am a bastard for a musical”. Whereas some might cringe and recoil at the prospect of characters spontaneously bursting in to song, there is very little in the cinematic and theatrical universe that gives me more pleasure. Jersey Boys, the Broadway and West End smash hit documenting the story of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons was a show that I saw and loved in London way back in 2009, and ever since plans for a big screen adaptation were revealed have been eagerly awaiting its release. Would the film be able to match the tempo and quality of the stage production?
Overall, I would have to say no. Arguably, the problem lays in the choice of director. The name Clint Eastwood means many things in Hollywood, but being at the helm of a musical is not one of them. The film tells the tale of the humble beginnings and complicated path to stardom that the quartet from New Jersey experienced, and the film is at its best when it is operating as a straight drama depicting the more sinister and serious side of the story. Growing up surrounded by New Jersey mobsters and and cultivating relationships with undesirable characters, Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and in particular band mate Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), lived lives away from the stage that were a far cry from the bubblegum melodies and sweet voices of their musical personas. As one would expect, Eastwood directs the drama very well and finds a pleasing balance in not making the serious details so heavy that they deter from the light feel of the musical interludes. Unfortunately, Eastwood’s clear preference for the straight acting sequences is clear to see when it comes to the musical scenes. The well known, catchy, infectious songs of The Four Seasons should be the highlights and centre piece sequences of the narrative, but instead they feel like muted and obligatory scenes that the director has to indulge in before he can get back to telling us a dramatic story. Though disappointing in comparison to the original stage version, the film is by no means an unpleasant or boring watch. The story behind the making and breaking of The Four Seasons is a truly interesting one and even though they could be better executed, the musical interludes are frequent and full of crowd favourites. Perhaps somebody who has no previous experience with the show may feel more kindly towards the direction, but personally I feel that Eastwood’s Jersey Boys lack energy compared to the stage version. The sequence that plays over the closing credits is arguably the most enjoyable of the entire film and this is because it is the most unashamedly and unreservedly musical.
One particularly pleasing aspect of Jersey Boys, though, is the sensible choice of casting. Three of the four actors chosen to portray the members of the The Four Seasons have previously played the roles on stage, and the comfort and familiarity with which they perform is reassuring and impressive. John Lloyd Young won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical in 2006 for his turn as Frankie Valli on the Broadway stage, and eight years down the line his portrayal is as fresh and fine tuned as it was at the beginning. Of course, the singing voice is flawless and the bizarre, enjoyable and unmistakable tone of the group’s lead singer is replicated to an almost eery extent. Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda are both dependable and engaging in reprising their stage roles, playing Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi respectively, with special mention for Bergen in helping Gaudio to become one of the more endearing and sympathetic characters in the narrative. The only freshman cast member is Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito, a savvy choice by the filmmakers in casting an actor with a touch more screen experience to play the character who is involved in the majority of the dramatic action in the picture. The lack of a real mainstream star presence among the four male leads never poses a real problem, all four actors are engaging and perform without complaint. Christopher Walken provides an enjoyable supporting role as local mobster Gyp DeCarlo, giving the audience a spark of star quality should they need it.
Overall, Jersey Boys is a film that whilst being enjoyable and watchable enough, feels rather like a missed opportunity. I have seen the film summarised as Goodfellas meets Grease, and that is a fairly accurate if not slightly basic description. The unfortunate aspect of this combination is that the film’s director appears to have only been interested in the Goodfellas portion of the project. Perhaps with a little more care and reverence for the music, the picture would have been a greater success. After all, it was the songs of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons that people fell in love with, and whilst it is interesting to learn about the their lives outside of the stage, it must be remembered that what drew the crowds in then and what continues to draw the crowds in to Broadway and West End theatres is the passion and love for the music.