I didn’t see the stage musical JERSEY BOYS.
I’m not the biggest fan of musicals or even of Frankie Valli, for that matter, as he was a bit before my time, but I am a fan of Clint Eastwood and the myriad of quality movies he consistently makes, both behind and in front of the camera, so perhaps this might explain my feelings towards today’s movie, JERSEY BOYS, Eastwood’s film adaptation of the award winning musical. It’s getting mediocre reviews, but I enjoyed it from start to finish, so much so that in this year of mediocre movies, JERSEY BOYS just might be the best movie I’ve seen so far this year.
JERSEY BOYS tells the story of singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, reprising his role from the musical), as he rises from the depths of crime ridden New Jersey streets in the 1950s and sings his way to stardom. As a teenager, Valli joins a band run by his friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who in his spare time does small jobs for the local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken). Gyp loves Frankie’s voice and encourages him to make it big.
Once Bobby Gaudio (Erich Bergen), a promising young musician and songwriter, joins their group, which also includes their friend Nick (Michael Lomenda), they settle upon a name, The Four Seasons, and then they work to get playing gigs and their songs played on the radio. They persevere through early failure before they put together three number one hits in a row, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man.”
But the road to fame never comes easy for them. Tommy’s selfish behavior consistently gets in the way of the band’s success, and he owes large sums of money to the mob. Early on, Frankie falls in love with and marries the charismatic Mary (Renee Marino), and they start a family together, but Frankie’s road schedule of constant gigs takes its toll on Mary and she starts drinking, eventually forcing Frankie out of the family picture.
And just when they seem to be hitting their stride with an appearance on The Ed Sullivan Show, things come crashing down on them.
The thing I liked best about JERSEY BOYS was it told a good story. The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, both of whom also wrote the musical, hits a homerun, and this comes as no surprise, knowing Brickman’s prior writing credits. Brickman’s a seasoned writer who years ago co-wrote the Woody Allen classics SLEEPER (1973), ANNIE HALL (1977), and MANHATTAN (1979).
Some have complained that the story of The Four Seasons as told in this movie is cliché ridden. I disagree. Just because there have been other stories of bands that went from rags to riches doesn’t meant that this particular story can’t be done well.
Of course, this story wouldn’t be a success if you didn’t like the main character, Frankie Valli.
From his rough beginnings in a Mafia neighborhood, Frankie comes across from the outset as a stand-up guy, even as a young sixteen year-old. He carries this persona with him throughout the story. Years later, when he should kick his friend Tommy into the street, he stands by his friend and agrees to have the band settle Tommy’s debt to the Mafia. This act of loyalty demonstrates what Valli is all about and shows why he’s determined throughout to be a success. It’s not for fame, glory, or money. It’s about living one’s life in a way that is respectful to one’s self and one’s friends. JERSEY BOYS paints a likable picture of Frankie Valli. He comes across as a decent human being trying to do the right thing, even when those around him don’t do the same.
The performances in JERSEY BOYS are all first-rate, and director Eastwood deserves a lot of credit for getting so much out of his largely fresh and new ensemble of actors. The players here all act like old pros, when in reality most of these folks are rather new to the film world.
John Lloyd Young, reprising the role of Frankie Valli from the stage musical for which he won the Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical, is as you would expect excellent in the role. Young makes Valli a solid likeable character throughout, and he should be applauded for running the full gamut of ages here, as he plays Valli as a teen, in his twenties, thirties, and even older. It’s a terrific performance.
Erich Bergen is just as good as Bobby Gaudio. There’s something very youthful and energetic in his performance, as he captures more than any of the other three members in the band what it’s like to be in a struggling and then successful band. He’s also the member with a head on his shoulders, and he helps steer Frankie in the right direction when things get murky.
Tommy Devito is the exact opposite, as he’s the band member who is constantly putting the band at risk. As Tommy, Vincent Piazza is superb. He makes Tommy a multi-dimensional character, one you never really hate. Sure, his selfishness and mob connections do the band no favors, but early on he’s the one who gets the band started and pushes it along.
Michael Lomenda is also very good as Nick Massi, the self-described “Ringo” of the group. Nick constantly feels overwhelmed by the group’s struggles and successes, and of the four, he’s the least dynamic. Lomenda does a nice job in this low-key role.
Renee Marino is excellent in her film debut as Frankie’s wife Mary. She’s absolutely electrifying in her first couple of scenes. Unfortunately, she’s not in the film much as it goes along, and in her remaining scenes she’s pretty much reduced to a nagging wife with a drinking problem.
And Mike Doyle as the group’s producer Bob Crewe enjoys some scene stealing moments in a neat supporting role. He has some of the film’s best lines, including a few laugh out loud moments.
Christopher Walken does the “Christopher Walken” thing as mobster Gyp DeCarlo. Walken brings an instant feel of menace and respect to the role, even though not once in the movie do we ever see DeCarlo engage in anything criminal. Walken makes full use of his presence here.
There has been only a handful of Clint Eastwood films that I haven’t been nuts about— in recent years J. EDGAR (2011) and HEREAFTER (2010) come to mind— which is remarkable considering the number of movies he has starred in and directed. The thing that I like most about Eastwood’s work is he has a way of making movies that cut through the muck and get to the simple issue of likeability. Watching a Clint Eastwood movie is like sitting with a favorite uncle who’s a gifted storyteller. He knows what he’s doing, and you know what you’re in for, a quality story that doesn’t disappoint.
In JERSEY BOYS, Eastwood effortlessly utilizes the gimmick— as they did in the play— of having the characters speak directly into the camera, and he uses this to full effect. He also uses some flashback and moves back and forth in time seamlessly here.
JERSEY BOYS is impeccably made, from the sets and costumes to the musical numbers. No, JERSEY BOYS is not a traditional musical in terms of song and dance numbers. It’s a bio pic, about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. But it does contain some tremendous music, as the Four Season’s canon of songs is a good one.
All in all, JERSEY BOYS tells a solid story, is flawlessly filmed, and features strong acting performances from everyone involved. It also features classic music from The Four Seasons.
This summer at the movies, you’ll be hard pressed to find a more satisfying movie experience.
And that’s because it’s more than just a story about a band. It’s about friendship, family, loyalty, and fighting for what you want even when those around you fight against you. Christopher Walken’s Gyp utters a telling line in this one, “Do the work and everything follows.” Hard work pays off. That’s usually the case. And the harder one works the harder it gets, but you keep going anyway.
Big Girls Don’t Cry. Neither do JERSEY BOYS.