During the end credits of Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys,” we see the cast of the film break the so-called “fourth wall” and come out for an anything-goes dance number, akin to a Broadway musical. It serves not only as an homage to the movie’s original roots as a stage show — it debuted on Broadway in 2005 — but also as a glimpse of what the film might have looked like had Eastwood or another director decided to go down a much campier road. Thankfully, that’s not how this version plays out at all, and still, the credits sequence doesn’t feel jarring or too out of place.
That’s because Eastwood has struck a perfect balance between the needs of storytelling in two very different mediums. Make no mistake about it; the movie adaptation of “Jersey Boys” is no musical. It’s a detailed and, at times, dark drama about the life and times of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Oh yes, all of those delicious Seasons tunes are of course showcased, so be prepared to be humming “Rag Doll,” “Dawn, and a dozen others (pick your favorite) upon exiting the theater. But there’s an additional unexpected dimension to the “Jersey Boys” film version that’s absent from the (also brilliant) Broadway version. That’s not to say it’s a downer, but this is a biopic that has a lot more in common with a movie like “Walk the Line” than the bubblegum jukebox musicality of “Mamma Mia!” From the lukewarm reaction that “Jersey Boys” has gotten from film critics, I was prepared to witness a real disaster…and was pleasantly surprised to discover what may well end up being my favorite flick of 2014.
Just to offer full disclosure, I must confess that I am a lifelong Clint Eastwood fan. I wouldn’t call myself an Eastwood “apologist,” as even I will admit that he’s had his share of clunkers. But you’ve got to cut the guy a break with a career that has spanned more than six decades, right? In recent years, Clint’s directorial efforts have come under fire from critics for overly slow pacing and brooding dynamics. But I’ve found most of them to be quite enjoyable experiences. Just because movies like “Trouble With the Curve” and “Hereafter” weren’t breaking major ground didn’t make them poor efforts in this reviewer’s opinion. To the contrary, I’ve felt much more connected to Eastwood’s latter-day works than I have to most of the films that have been garnering attention from the prestigious Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences. Dare I say that the other critics will never get over seeing Dirty Harry conversing with an empty chair at the Republican National Convention? After all, they treated him quite a bit differently in 2004, when “Million Dollar Baby” — whose supposed “message” on the topic of euthanasia was welcomed by Hollywood– earned a whopping four Academy Awards, including Best Picture. Are you feeling the Eastwood love from the Academy post-2012? Yeah, not so much. You never quite know what motivates others to vehemently dislike things that seem so…instantly likable. And I found a lot to love in “Jersey Boys.”
This time around, Eastwood demonstrates a mastery of his craft behind the camera, delivering a cinematic experience that has echoes of “Goodfellas” and “A Bronx Tale” as the backdrop for its music-filled tale. Not a whole lot was known about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons during their heyday in the 60’s, probably because they were rarely written about. Chances are good that the mafia was paying people off to help preserve the Four Seasons’ clean-cut image, but we’ll never know for sure. It wasn’t until “Jersey Boys” hit broadway that the truth about the band’s criminal origins in the 50’s really came out. Among the highlights of the film is seeing a young Joe Pesci (played by actor Joseph Russo) facilitate the meeting between 3 of the band members and the legendary Bob Gaudio, who became the Fourth “Season” and penned all of the band’s biggest hits. For “Goodfellas” fans, you’ll finally figure out why the real-life Pesci character in Martin Scorcese’s film was named after Four Seasons member Tommy Devito. The classic “Goodfellas” line, “Who the hell do you think you are, Frankie Valli or some kinda big shot?” finally makes a whole lot of sense.
But the real star of the show here is Valli himself, portrayed with great respect by John Lloyd Young, who earned a Tony Award for his portrayal in the original Broadway run. Some critics have noted that it’s been nine years since he first played the character, so it’s a bit hard to believe Young as a 16-year old Valli in the early section of the film (the actor is now 38). Personally, I didn’t find it distracting that he may have “aged out” of the role. It might even be argued that he essentially “aged into” the older version of Valli that we see in the third act, where before, Young was too…well, young. Whatever your preference may be on that score, there’s no denying that by the time he belts out “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” towards the film’s end, he channels the spirit of a broken 1967 Frankie just brilliantly.
Eastwood made the controversial decision to cast mostly stage actors from different incarnations of the production (ripped directly from on and off Broadway), utilizing Vincent Piazza of “Boardwalk Empire” as the only “movie star” in the band (though he does quite often steal the show). Ultimately, it works. After all, who knows these characters better than the actors who have portrayed them for years? Not only does the story feel more authentic in its narrative — these really do seem like kids from the rough streets of Jersey — but it also allows for fresh takes of the music, rather than simply lip-syncing to the oldies. Updating timeless classics like “Working My Way Back to You” and “Walk Like a Man” using a mix of recordings from the stage production as well as actual “live-to-film” performances proves fresh and immediate. Much like the Joaquin Phoenix/Reese Witherspoon performances in “Walk the Line,” it feels a little weird at first (since the original versions are ingrained in our psyche), but you adjust to it almost instantly. About halfway into the movie, you realize that it would have made little to no sense for these talented stars not to perform for “real” in some way. They’ll never top the originals, of course, but I don’t think anyone is supposed to believe that they’re attempting to. For the naysayers, there’s happily at least one Four Seasons original recording that makes its way into the final act of the soundtrack.
This is not to say the film is without its flaws. Eastwood does introduce a character towards the end of the film who meets a tragic end, but he doesn’t spend enough time fleshing her story out earlier in the film so that the moment strikes with the emotional impact that it should. Similarly, there’s a scene involving Valli’s angry wife that made me feel like a previous scene was mysteriously missing (I was a bit puzzled why she was suddenly operating at a Hulk-level of anger). Perhaps a Director’s Cut would easily remedy this, though the movie already runs well over 2 hours. For Four Seasons completists, the film also skips over a number of their hit songs (just as the original play does), which is disappointing, considering the rather long stretches of time where no music is used. Eastwood could have easily thrown in a tune like “Ronnie,” “Let’s Hang On,” or “Candy Girl,” even as background music. Small touches like that would have gone a long way, and it does sometimes feel like Clint didn’t want to stray at all from the source material. With a few exceptions — including the addition of at least one completely new scene — the script of “Jersey Boys” the movie is a direct port of the script from “Jersey Boys” the play (it actually features each of the Four Seasons “breaking the fourth wall” and speaking directly to the camera, as if they were on stage). But as we all know, cinema provides the opportunity to do things that live theater simply cannot. One section of the movie is structured as a flashback, but it goes on so long that we almost forget it’s a flashback. Surely, there must have been a better way to piece the same story together without confusing the audience. But Clint seemed very wedded to the source material. Eastwood is generally known for his minimalist approach to pictures, which is why it was a bit shocking to hear that he was doing this film at all (it was originally slated to be directed by Jon Favreau of “Iron Man” and “Swingers” fame). So he does miss a few opportunities to add some original touches. Still, he does manage to work in a personal cameo of sorts that I won’t spoil for those who have yet to see it.
All in all, these are minor gripes about what was an enormously delightful experience. It’s a rags-to-riches-to-rags-to-riches tale that’s presented with discipline and respect. “Jersey Boys” is the ultimate date movie: girls will love it, and guys may actually love it more. It’s dramatic at times, serious at other times, and endlessly catchy when it needs to be, all set against a visual backdrop that’s both gorgeous and authentic. Besides, did I mention it features Christopher Walken as the most lovable gangster ever?
I immediately wanted to see the movie a second time, and I found myself humming the enduring melodies of the Four Seasons for days afterwards. That means one of two things: either most of the things the average critic considers to be negatives are actually positives in this case…or I’m just crazy. But I can tell you this. It’s rare that I witness an entire movie theater audience stand up and applaud after a film. This one received the Tinseltown equivalent of a standing ovation.
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