Clint Eastwood, one of the most-respected actors and directors of his generation, has been in front of and behind the camera for some of the most influential movies of the last half-century. Now he takes centerstage by adding a Broadway musical adaptation to his incredible resume. While not as sensational as the Great White Way itself, Eastwood’s big-screen “Jersey Boys” has enough redeeming qualities to warrant movie fans to “Walk Like a Man” (or woman) to a nearby theater to see it.
John Lloyd Young won a 2006 Tony Award for Best Actor in a Musical for his performance as Four Seasons frontman Frankie Valli. The show was also honored as Best Musical (Oh, What a Night indeed), and is still, nearly ten years later, an unstoppable force both on Broadway and in touring productions nationwide. Young returned to his stage role last year, and on one “Sunday Kind of Love” afternoon, Eastwood happened to be in the audience. They talked backstage after the show, and Young was cast in the role of a lifetime all over again. Completely comfortable with the character, he adapts seamlessly to portraying the complicated Valli on screen.
“Jersey Boys” starts slowly, as we are introduced to each of the young men who will become the Four Seasons. Frankie is a sixteen-year-old barber with dreams of becoming a singing sensation. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) are close friends of Frankie from the neighborhood. The older guys are part-time musicians and part-time criminals, who get Frankie into trouble at times, but always take the fall for him because they know he’s a good kid and realize he’s going to be star someday.
Gyp DeCarlo (Oscar winner Christopher Walken) is the neighborhood mob boss who the guys work for. He also agrees that “The world’s gonna hear that voice” and he befriends Frankie as well. As Tommy and Nick struggle to develop a successful sound and group they decide it’s time to add Frankie as their lead singer and they bring-in a fourth member, talented songwriter and musician Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). Soon they stumble upon a new name for the group and they are on their way.
And it’s when The Four Seasons begin recording their hit singles that “Jersey Boys” begin to take off. The songs are not performed “Les Miserables”- Live, but are wonderfully presented, used to guide the story and characters perfectly. There’s a terrific twenty-minute stretch consisting of stellar renditions, a few funny situations, appearances that range from small clubs to their American Bandstand debut, and even an Eastwood cameo on a hotel TV. This is where the film hits some of its highest notes.
But a short time later, in a scene involving another national TV appearance, there’s a dramatic shift in tone. This is also when “Jersey Boys” begins to drag, as the focus shifts to the members’ financial, family, relationship, and health problems. Clearly, this part of the story needed to be told, but it’s all presented in such a staged, stale way, that every scene seems too long and too overblown. I thought one particular scene, at DeCarlo’s mansion, would never end.
At times it appears as if Eastwood filmed an actual Broadway show and put it on screen. The majority of scenes take place in a single room, with a still camera, very tight shots, and a slightly glossy look. The sets and costumes are simple but appropriate, and he even uses a (very obvious) green-screen for a driving scene, almost as an homage to movies of that time period. And there’s no overlapping dialogue. All of the actors project their lines loudly and deliberately, as if on the stage.
One of the other interesting aspects of “Jersey Boys” is Eastwood’s decision to have three of the main characters talk directly to audience throughout the film, narrating the story as it progresses. This device didn’t bother me, but it does take you away from the flow of the story a little bit. Common to Broadway shows, it doesn’t add much here.
Thankfully, “Jersey Boys” recovers from that lull in the middle with a successful final act, when the film, finally, becomes Frankie’s voice. We get the most interesting developments in the script and the most emotional scenes. The smart ending includes more “breaking the 4th wall” (if it was only used here it might’ve been more effective) and better aging makeup than in Eastwood’s previous film, the 2011 Presidential biopic “J. Edgar”.
“Jersey Boys” is rated R for brief violence, some suggestive adult dialogue, and, as the MPAA distinguishes it: “Language Throughout”. But it’s a very mild R. A perfect “Jersey Boys” movie was likely “too good to be true”. But I’ll admit, it was difficult to “take my eyes off” the screen. Eastwood and his cast of mostly cinematic newcomers do draw you into this rollercoaster of a story about success and failure, and the price that is often paid for both.
On The Official LCJ Report Card, “Jersey Boys” gets a B-.