Jersey Boys makes the big-screen leap

by Mark Burger

It might seem unusual that Clint Eastwood has directed the screen adaptation of the long-running Broadway musical Jersey Boys, which won four Tony Awards in 2006 and is still cruising on the Great White Way after 3,500 performances.

Yet the two-time Oscar-winning director, one of whose early big-screen starring roles was in the 1969 musical flop Paint Your Wagon, also helmed the evocative and powerful Charley Parker drama Bird (1988) – a terrific film about music. Eastwood’s attentive but laid-back approach, less about directorial flourish than simply telling the story at hand, yields affecting and nostalgic results. Jersey Boys isn’t perfect, but it’s almost always enjoyable and, in its modest way, a small triumph.

Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who penned the Broadway book, repeat the feat with the film’s screenplay, which chronicles the history of the rock ‘n’ roll group Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. Living across the river from – and in the shadow of – New York City, the eventual music legends indulged in petty crime and operated on the fringes of the local mob, represented by Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarlo, a rather paternal godfather who’s as much Damon Runyon and Mario Puzo. (The actor’s fans are no doubt aware that Walken began his own show-biz career as a stage hoofer.)

Eastwood opted not to cast more familiar faces for the pivotal lead roles, instead tapping John Lloyd Young, reprising his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli; Vincent Piazza, a veteran of HBO’s “The Sopranos” and “Boardwalk Empire” (in which he plays Lucky Luciano) as Tommy DeVito, the initial founder of the group, undone by self-destructive gambling; Michael Lomenda, a veteran of the touring company, as Nick Massi, the first member to leave the group; and Erich Bergen, also from the touring company, as Bob Gaudio, a prolific writer, aspiring producer and last member to join the group. The real Gaudio, who shepherded the Broadway show, is also an executive producer here.

This rags-to-riches saga, punctuated (obviously) by the Four Seasons’ chart-topping hits, covers a lot of narrative ground, sometimes in languid fashion, but the period detail is exquisite. The film looks its era, thanks to the sparkling work of production designer James T. Murakami and Eastwood’s long-time cinematographer, Tom Stern.

There’s a fairy-tale aspect to the story, as with many musicals, but Jersey Boys doesn’t shy away from depicting the price it exacted of the members, which included failed marriages, broken relationships and fractured friendships. The rapid rise to the top was followed by the inevitable decline. Some of the group’s most popular songs were the result of emotional loss or immediate financial need. Yet, of course, it’s the music that lingers on, and continues to live on in the hearts of fans the world over.

As in the play, each character has moments in which to address the audience directly and offer their thoughts and perceptions, which are occasionally at odds with the perceptions of the others. So amid the colorful, sometimes splashy numbers, there’s an underlying dramatic texture and often a dramatic conflict.

There’s a good deal of humor, too – and not just in the gentle, affectionate tweaking of various Italian, Catholic, New Jersey, and homosexual stereotypes. Jersey Boys has its edgy moments, but no mean-spirited ones. It’s as much a celebration as a dissection. The film tells its story in a fashion entirely fitting with the identity of the Broadway show and the people it’s about.

The performances are generally solid all around, with Walken in fine form and a delightful, scene-stealing turn by Mike Doyle as record producer Bob Crewe. Of the Four Seasons, Bergen is a standout as the practical, down-to-earth Gaudio, whose best-laid plans almost go awry. The musical numbers were shot live, lending a real intimacy to them, and the film’s Four Seasons sound remarkably like the real thing.

In a summer jam-packed with mega-buck blockbusters, Jersey Boys (with a reported price-tag of “only” $40 million) seems almost an anomaly, despite being bankrolled by a major studio, Warner Brothers. The film would seem more appropriate as a fall release (closer to awards season) than a warm-weather one. In addition, it’s a musical – always an iffy box-office proposition – and, even rarer, an R-rated musical. It’s something a little out of the ordinary, but hardly unwelcome. Clint Eastwood continues to surprise, and impress.