By: Tim Cogshell
Clint Eastwood’s semi-historically accurate biopic of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys, is based on the hit 2005 Broadway musical — and it is a crushing bore. But we shall start with the positive: In Eastwood’s film, the music and the performances of the music (which are not the same thing) are great. That is to be expected, as the Jersey Boys movie cast is mostly composed from cast members of the stage show, including Tony winner John Lloyd Young, who happens to look a lot like Frankie Valli and who has a four-plus octave range. Lucky boy. Lloyd Young is also a serviceable actor with a number of (mostly stage) credits that did not require a piercing falsetto. That combination allows him to play Frankie Valli with just enough verisimilitude to smoothly slip into the music of the Four Seasons like a shark-skin suit, and to convincingly play the fairly lugubrious drama of Mr. Valli’s not particularly interesting life. But once again, Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys movie is a bore.
The ridiculously handsome Erich Bergen, as songwriting genius Bob Gaudio — the linchpin addition to the flailing Four Lovers doo-wop group, then renamed The Four Seasons — is also a hoot to watch. Bergen can act, he can dance, and he’s funny. Michael Lomenda makes his film debut as Nick Massi, the bass player. It’s a thankless role that Lomenda plays heartily, not unlike the long-suffering bass player for the original Four Seasons. In truth, Massi quit the band long before the moment depicted in Jersey Boys, but I don’t blame the filmmakers for taking license; the movie would have been that much more boring if they hadn’t. Lomenda is funny, and he can act, dance, and play bass at the same time, which is sumthin’ all by itself.
Vincent Piazza plays Tommy DeVito, a former lead singer of several failed groups who has to give up the limelight to Frankie Valli, whose talent and charisma is indisputable. DeVito is a scoundrel and an asshole who both puts the original group together and causes its eventual demise. Not long ago, Piazza had a good run playing Lucky Luciano on the series Boardwalk Empire; he plays “ass” with relish, and he plays a nice rhythm guitar too. He’s good.
Giving these guys their big movie break is a noble effort on the part of Jersey Boysdirector-producer Clint Eastwood, a veteran who knows how tough a break in movies is to come by. So he gives the cast of the Jersey Boys musical a break in a Clint Eastwood movie — and they’re good. But I can’t help but imagine the diminutive Broadway actress Stephanie Mills, Dorothy in the Tony-winning 1974 musical The Wiz: The Super Soul Musical “Wonderful Wizard of Oz,” and her big-booming voice being cast in Sidney Lumet’s 1978 film The Wiz, which instead starred sinewy, doe-eyed Diana Ross, and her fragile, lilting voice. Yes, the movie was panned, but the soundtrack was great.
But once again, the cast of Jersey Boys is good. Unfortunately, “good” is not what a film otherwise as uninteresting as Jersey Boys needs. A film this dull needs great. These guys are good, which suggests Jersey Boys may be a movie with a great soundtrack.
A share of the problem lies with Clint Eastwood, whose uninspired direction is also merely “good.” Jersey Boys looks fine. Indeed, the Warner Bros. backlot, which is where most of the film was shot, always looks fine. The staged New Jersey and New York streets, complete with the correct mix of automobiles from the late ’50s and ’60s, are meticulously well done — as if from memory. In fact, Jersey Boys is so “backlot,” so staid and staged, it might have actually been made in the ’50s.
Of course, all of the principals involved in Jersey Boys who don’t appear on screen are septuagenarians or octogenarians and do remember these days, perhaps even these places, first hand. Executive producers Frankie Valli and Bob Gaudio were guiding forces behind the musical’s adaptation to film, along with musical director Bob Crewe (who is also depicted in the film). In fact, most of the key decision-makers about the content found in Jersey Boys are people depicted by name in the film. This is a circumstance that might be tamed only by a director as venerable as Clint Eastwood — who chooses not to. Eastwood loves the music of this era; he is enamored of these artists and his admiration shows in this flat, overly nostalgic, overly reverent, and totally paceless movie. Jersey Boys meanders from one scene to the next, one year to the next, one season to the next, marking events as if they were on a checklist of notes handed down from the executive producers. Which they probably were.
The result is a film that never whirls one up in the excitement of a young musical group being discovered, scratching their way to the top, having it all, and losing it all, even though that’s exactly what happened in the real-life history of the Four Seasons, in the very popular stage musical — and in Clint Eastwood’s very boring movie. Vexing, certainly, but the causes are simple. Jersey Boys is fodder for musical theater. That’s what it is, and that’s what it should be; sometimes it just does not translate. Chicago translated to cinema; All That Jazz, did not. Neither did A Chorus Line, Rent, etc.
And finally, despite the successful musical, the Jersey Boys movie is boring because the story of the Four Seasons and the much beloved Mr. Frankie Valli is equally boring. The great Marshall Brickman, writer and/or co-writer of Woody Allen’sAnnie Hall and Manhattan, and — with Rick Elice — of the book for the Jersey Boys stage musical, serves (along with Elice) as screenwriter for the film adaptation. Brickman and Elice have a problem in that there is little in the history of the Four Seasons or Frankie Valli’s life that’s actually interesting, even given the real-life circumstance of their having become enduring pop stars. Remarkable, but true.
As found in Jersey Boys, the gist is this: Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons were borderline delinquents who were mob-adjacent. But for the fact that they had talent, they’d have likely moved into the neighborhood. Clint Eastwood’s film turns Valli into an angel and a stand-up guy who pays his debts — and apparently the debts of everyone else. And he only whored around a little. That’s pretty much it. Brickman, Elice, and Eastwood attempt to hide this blandness by having everyone speak in Jersey-ese: the accents, slang, and attitude are all Jersey. That is cute, then irritating, then very irritating. And that is exactly how I feel about the movie itself.
Ultimately, Jersey Boys proves that truth is often neither stranger nor as interesting as fiction. The Four Seasons have certainly left a legacy of great music, but here are just a few films set during that same period, and that feature great songs and great — though fictional — stories that won’t bore you senseless: Allison Anders’ Grace of my Heart, a great movie with a great story, starring Illeana Douglas — who sang all the songs herself — in her first big film, playing oppositeMatt Dillon. Robert Townsend’s The Five Heartbeats, which features a host of wonderful, young black actors, including Townsend himself and Leon (from Madonna’s “Like a Prayer” music video), the latter beautifully not playing Eddie Kendricks of the Temptations. And lastly, Taylor Hackford’s The Idolmaker, starring Ray Sharkey and a young Peter Gallagher. A lover of this type of music, Hackford would receive an Academy Award nomination for directing another great period musical, Ray, one that is based on a true story — and gets it right.
Tim is Critic At Large for Alt Film Guide (http://www.altfg.com/blog/). Twenty years of his reviews are archived at: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/critic/tim-cogshell/