Broadway’s tale of the Four Seasons doesn’t translate to film musical magic
JERSEY BOYS” IS A FILM WITHOUT AN IDENTITY. IT doesn’t know what it wants to be. The stage version, a jukebox musical featuring the songs of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is immensely popular and well received, features 34 musical performances, a careful and well-planned plot structure, and a fourth-wall-breaking storytelling device that reveals the contradictions between the way the band members remember the events of their youth.
The film apes some of these pieces of the stage show, but only halfheartedly, without committing to the performance aspects needed to tell the story.
“Jersey Boys” the film seems to have more in common with biopics like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” However, with one exception, the film doesn’t develop any of the characters into fully realized people. By trying to mimic the stage show while making a serious drama about the group, the film does neither approach justice, making “Jersey Boys” overlong and mostly empty.
Perhaps the most interesting part of the film (save for the musical numbers which are too few and far between), is the background of the boys in the Four Seasons. Without the music, three of the members would have likely ended up dead or in jail due to mob-related activities. The audience learns about the small-time criminal careers of Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the guitar and bass player of the Four Seasons, respectively. The pair occasionally bring little Frankie Castellucio (Broadway star John Lloyd Young) along on their extra-legal activities, but are careful to protect him from any real danger. He has to be home by 11, after all.
The beginning of the film, when the boys are learning who they are and rising into the role of musical legends, contains genuinely engaging bits of storytelling. This is mostly due to it being part of Tommy’s story, the only one that jumps off the screen with life.
Vincent Piazza has the longest acting resume of any of the main actors, and his natural abilities make his character outshine the other three. (His few episodes on “The Sopranos” clearly prepared him well for this role.) Michael Lomada and Erich Bergan are bland by comparison, John Lloyd Young is only interesting when singing—he has almost no personality at all when not “on stage”.
The problem here is that the adaptation did not translate well to film as a medium. Clint Eastwood is an odd choice as the director of a musical, so much so that I had to look to make sure that it wasn’t some other Clint Eastwood. Eastwood is one of the better directors of the last 20 years—“Unforgiven” and “Million Dollar Baby” are understated and beautiful films. However, his style isn’t going to enhance an adaptation of a Broadway musical.
Broadway requires excess. Someone like Baz Luhrman might have been a better choice. It isn’t that there couldn’t have been a good film version of “Jersey Boys.” It seems these filmmakers made strange choices in the beginning of the process, and then tried to fix them in post. It’s as if Eastwood had his own vision of the film and someone came in and told him that musicals usually have bright colors and dancing.
“Jersey Boys” needed to be either a musical or a biopic. The drawback to doing a straight biopic is that at a certain point, all of these stories begin to sound the same. Pop stars follow the same trajectory and face many of the same issues: drugs, money, parties, infidelity. It’s all been done before. The music is the difference.
I have to say that music included in the film is spectacular. John Lloyd Young has pipes to rival young Frankie Valli and watching him on screen made me want to see him perform live. I can tell by the musical numbers that the live show must be vibrant and powerful—there’s nothing like watching choreographed early rock and roll. This is the popular music that dominated the 1960s before the Beatles made everything so much more serious.
The sequences in the film highlight just how rock and roll changed the world. If only the filmmakers had known what was important in the story, it might have been something worth watching. As it is, “Jersey Boys” takes too long to get to a point that has been made more effectively in better movies.