For lack of a better term, the Broadway musical Jersey Boys has always been known as somewhat of a "popcorn" stage production, an entertaining yet fairly unsubstantial piece of theater made popular through waves of nostalgia and because of music that is so vibrant and alive with the human spirit that it's impossible to not adore it even if you don't particularly enjoy it.
To both the benefit and the detriment of this cinematic adaptation of Jersey Boys, director Clint Eastwood is clearly interested in accomplishing far more than a simple popcorn flick and, in fact, he seems to grasp that there's a heart beating within Jersey Boys that is far more substantial than simply catchy music and four young men from Belleville, New Jersey somehow avoiding a life of crime on their way to achieving the American dream.
The film kicks off in 1951 with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a street punk with a musical trio and a low-level connection to Gyp (Christopher Walken), a mobster with a penchant for really fine music. Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), soon to become Frankie Valli, is a 16-year-old neighborhood kid with a beautiful voice and an easily influenced mind who starts hanging out with Tommy and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the latter being the group's tagalong guy with the obligatory baritone voice. When the trio finally realizes that quartets are what's all the rage, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) who's obviously not much like the other guys but whose songwriting abilities and business acumen are more than a little needed.
Despite Clint Eastwood's long association with musical stories, at first thought he seems like an odd choice to adapt Jersey Boys to the big screen. If you've ever seen a stage production of Jersey Boys, and while I haven't seen it on Broadway I have seen it on stage, the stage production is an energetic and fun film divided into four distinct "seasons" with each member of the quartet having their season to shine. Eastwood remains somewhat faithful to the structure, with noticeable shifting, but he also infuses the film with a stronger sense of character development and a greater sense of authenticity than is found in the stage production. While there will most certainly be folks who steadfastly prefer the stage production, even as I left the theater I was hearing comments from other audience members about how much they preferred Eastwood's film over the stage production.
While Eastwood is steadfastly committed to a more substantial production, it's almost undeniable that Jersey Boys is still at its best when the music is playing. Much to his credit, Eastwood allows entire numbers to be played out and, even more to his credit, he does a stellar job at capturing the relationship between performer and audience.
It's not that unusual these days to see older actors and actresses playing high school and college-age characters, and despite John Lloyd Young being 38-years-old he convincingly plays Frankie Valli from ages 16-56 with convincing make-up in the latter years. Most of those in the know realize that he originated the role on Broadway and won a Tony Award for his effort, and he's certainly solid enough in the film that it's difficult to imagine anyone else handling the role. Vincent Piazza shines as Tommy DeVito, a talented guy whose many vices are constantly getting the best of him and the boys. Michael Lomenda is also quite good as Nick, while Erich Bergen manages to make sympathetic a character who could have so easily just been the guy who divides Valli's loyalties. While Gyp is the kind of role that Walken could play in his sleep, to his credit he gives a wide awake and inspired performance.
For anyone familiar with Valli and the Four Seasons or simply this era of music, it may prove to be just a bit maddening the number of ways in which Jersey Boys takes liberties with the facts ranging from a Topo Gigio reference that was made well before Gigio was a known entity and an incredibly jarring decision to make Valli's hit "My Eyes Adored You" somehow have a connection to his daughter despite almost universal knowledge being available that the song was about one of his young boyhood crushes and, in fact, just thinking about the song's lyrics somehow connected to his daughter is borderline creepy.
There's also an odd line reference towards film's end where a reporter is questioning Valli's loyalty to DeVito and Valli makes a comment along the lines of "He took me off the streets," an odd statement to make since the entire scenario unfolds in the film and that's not how it plays out.
While there are modest quibbles with the script for Jersey Boys to be found, the simple truth is that you'll likely be so caught up in the film's catchy music and spirit that you won't much mind occasional liberties and factual errors. It would appear that Eastwood, when it comes down to it, set out to create a film that adds a tremendous amount of soul to the story behind Jersey Boys, a story about four young men who worked hard and made their name in music before The Beatles came along and became the biggest thing around.
© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic