The conversations at Warner Bros. when Jersey Boys went into production must have been miles from where this movie landed.
Int. Burbank, California.
“Hey, you know that megahit musical Jersey Boys? Yeah, it’s the one about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons that those Baby Boomers. It’s already a hit, with brand recognition of its own. It’s got all this kitschy American history, Italian cultural business, catchy pop music from the ‘50s… yeah, we should put that in theaters! Yeah, yeah, let’s fast-track this thing. Let’s get someone with an intense, colorful panache for Italian-American minutiae and mainstream music. Get Scorsese for a meeting!”
No one in their right mind would think that Clint “now yells at chair” Eastwood should helm this sucker, yet here we are and we may be better for it. Oh, what a sight Jersey Boys is. This casual musical may be Clint Eastwood’s most commercial effort to date. He hasn’t been this breezy, or, fun since the ‘80s.
This is the story of Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomeda), and Bobby Gaudio (Erich Berden), The Four Seasons, probably America’s most popular and successful band before The Beatles. Assembling some of the Broadway show’s original quartet of actors, Jersey Boys shows the band members’ birth, rise, and inevitable downfall through the music mainstream of the ‘50s and ‘60s. In many respects, this adaptation is by the numbers.
You’ve seen a musician biopic before, right? It’s all that sex and partying and old age makeup and personal struggle stuff. Yes, its Italian Americana is sort of gabbogol, since that’s been better articulated in about a dozen things like Goodfellas and The Sopranos; some of that show’s cast members even show up for face value authenticity. It’s less stagey and more filmic, opting for traditional melodrama. Yet, in the end the whole thing moves so fast and it has the most irresistible spirit.
Some of those more contentious aspects can be seen as perks. By not having cast members break out into song like so many other musicals, the movie takes on a much more naturalistic vibe. It’s a nice change of pace and frees Jersey Boys from having to be exactly like the play. Deviation in presentation is arguably the film’s biggest asset, but the songs stills adorn and propel the story.
The actors endear themselves to the audience by addressing the camera, providing desired insights or solid and snarky dialogue. The songs bounce, and the lines, while probably direct from the play, still zing (after a hookup, Bobby casually boasts that having sex “IS better with someone else”). Everyone’s such a good sport and so glad to be putting on a new version of the show. You can even hear enthusiasm in Christopher Walken’s scoffs and grunts as Gyp DeCarlo, an old Garden State gangster and confidante to the boys. Jersey Boys bounces because of its affable attitude.
Also, and this is totally going to make some folks groan, but there are these on-the-nose moments that show when songs come into creation. For example, in one scene Bobby’s watching Ace in the Hole with the band’s producer, Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), on a break from hitting their heads against a piano looking for a new hit. As Crewe’s describing a scene in the movie where Jan Sterling is smacked around by Kirk Douglas, Crewe whispers “big girls don’t cry.” BOOM. Bobby immediately looks at Crewe, with the eyes of someone who just fell in love or saw an angel. “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” the song, starts playing immediately, and there’s a hard cut to them performing the song itself. It’s obvious, yes, yet the right direction.
Call it campy. Call it corny. But those moves really succeed in a light-hearted rendition like this. Regard Jersey Boys in its obligations to the stage, and you’ll feel let down. But why try to see if this lives up to the play when the music and humor is infectious, the direction is shrewd, and the melodrama is at least upfront? Clint Eastwood allows himself to really loosen up for the first time since, like, Bronco Billy. Jersey Boys just feels like it’s hitting a lot of the right notes.