Film Review: Jersey Boys

Solid adaptation of the Broadway hit shows how The Four Seasons became pop stars.

For close to ten years a mainstay on Broadway, the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys shows how four kids from New Jersey became pop sensations while recreating several of their hit songs on stage. The movie adaptation plays down the music for a more dramatic account of how The Four Seasons dealt with prison, the Mob, and the excesses of celebrity life. This subdued, somber musical marks another twist in director Clint Eastwood's career.

Working from a script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the stage play, Eastwood starts the movie in the 1950s, when Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young, reprising his Tony-winning role) worked in a barbershop in blue-collar Belleville, New Jersey. Frankie falls in with a rough crowd, including Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). When not robbing stores and breaking into apartments, the three sing pop tunes in a mob-connected nightclub.

Protected by mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), who admires his singing voice, Frankie avoids jail time, unlike Tommy and Nick. Adopting the surname "Valli," he befriends Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a songwriter who becomes a rival to Tommy in the band. Another key in the group's eventual success is gay producer/lyricist Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), whose lifestyle serves to further isolate Tommy from the others.

With Gaudio and Crewe on board, the group finally has original material, and the movie can switch over from syrupy chestnuts like "My Mother's Eyes" to the songs that put The Four Seasons on the top of American charts. Eastwood uses an amusing montage to show how "Sherry" was crafted into a hit, and stages several of the group's subsequent hits as television performances.

Success ironically brings more problems. Tommy falls prey to a loan shark, Frankie's marriage to Mary (an excellent Renée Marino) suffers, and Nick gets fed up with touring.

To viewers of a certain age, "Walk Like a Man," "Rag Doll," "Big Girls Don't Cry" and the other Seasons hits instantly evoke a vanished cultural landscape of 45s, goofy dances, and Valli's soaring falsetto. Jersey Boys ties them to darker themes of personal animosities, grinding insecurities, betrayals and rejections.

The big question facing Warner Bros. is how younger viewers will respond to 50-year-old pop tunes, let alone a largely downbeat plotline that says success is a drag. And with his no-frills, straightforward directing style, Eastwood makes no concessions to glitzy, show-biz razzle-dazzle.

Like Eastwood's recent movies, Jersey Boys moves at a measured, steady pace, documenting without fully participating in the manic hysteria of the Top Forty music machine. The cast follows suit, delivering effective, believable performances that never quite catch fire. Even the reliable Walken seems relatively reined in.

Jersey Boys the play fits into the "jukebox" genre, an excuse to string together a bunch of songs with minimal plotting. Jersey Boys the movie is less a musical than a cautionary tale about the danger of getting what you want. In fact, it's not until the movie's closing moments that Eastwood unleashes a full-fledged dance number, "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)."

Eastwood may not have directed a Broadway musical before, but he's always been drawn to stories like this. From Bronco Billy to Flags of Our Fathers and Hereafter, he's addressed the pros and cons of success, and failure, with assurance and insight. Maybe it's his own experiences that give Jersey Boys such dramatic weight.

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