I was talking to a friend recently about PURPLE RAIN a film I hold very near and dear to my heart while still recognizing (now more so than ever) its deep, deep flaws. During the conversation, I admitted that after a few months of fast forwarding through the story to get to the live performances, I eventually edited together a version of the film that was nothing but the musical moments and subsequently wore out that tape in short order. I hadn't really thought about having done that until watching director Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the Tony Award-winning musical JERSEY BOYS, because I realized after one viewing that if I ever watched it again, I would have to be able to skip through the energy-free story to get to the stunning music sections.
I never saw the stage version of JERSEY BOYS for the simple reason that I'm not a fan of musicals that take the greatest hits of a band and manufacture a story around the songs (I'm looking at you “Mamma Mia,” “Movin' Out,” “We Will Rock You” and I guess “Rock of Ages”; I'll give “American Idiot” a slight pass only because it's based on a concept album that essentially was one story set to music). But JERSEY BOYS always intrigued me because it was the only one of these types of musicals whose plot was the actual story of the group whose music they were using—sort of a biopic on stage. So converting it to the big screen didn't seem like that much of a stretch, and I truly love the music of The Four Seasons and their front man, Frankie Valli.
Most of the film's lead actors come from some version of the stage show, including the remarkable John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for playing Valli, as well as Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi (bass and vocal arrangements), Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio (keyboards and lead songwriter), and Renée Marino as Valli's volatile and frustrated wife Mary. Key to the cast is "Boardwalk Empire" featured player Vincent Piazza as group founder Tommy DeVito. Tommy is his own worst enemy, preferring shady deals and massive overspending to playing it straight or risk losing any power in the group.
The story is fairly typical of many bands that rose up from nothing and became international superstars while they were still in their 20s. In fact, the story is so familiar, it feels a bit stale as we have to endure band fights, inflated egos, bad business deals, troubles at home, and the perks of the job gone awry. Some of the more unique elements of The Four Seasons have to do with their connections to the mob, given to us in the form of Gyp DeCarlo (a real made man brought to life by a spirited Christopher Walken). The language in JERSEY BOYS is rather salty, easily pushing it into R-rated territory. But even this twist to the story isn't enough to make the non-musical moments especially interesting.
Even director Eastwood seems less interested in the rise-to-success part of the story than he is in staging the musical numbers (all done with live vocals), which don't have a lot of flash, but at least he has the common sense to let the songs play from beginning to end. But the screenplay from the musical's book writers Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice resorts to one tired "Behind the Music" cliche after another, and even if it's all factually accurate, it feels like a template.
Aside from John Lloyd Young's singing, other elements that do shine include some fun moments of discovery in the studio, scenes early in the film showing the group coming together in between smalltime heists committed by DeVito and his crew, as well as some great dramatic scenes of the band falling apart near the end of the movie. I also liked the bittersweet recreation of The Four Seasons' induction into and performance at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. (Although why Valli's work on the theme song from GREASE was excluded from this story, I'll never understand.)
To put it simply, there's a much-needed spark missing from JERSEY BOYS that all the yelling and swearing doesn't quite make up for. Even the scenes with music aren't that special, but the music is so good, they feel better than they actually are visually. I don't tend to speculate on things like this, but the film feels like a payday for Eastwood, something he has very little personal connection to. The result is watching good actors go through the motions. Perhaps the worst decision the filmmakers made was to include fourth-wall-breaking narrations, traded off by all of the Four Seasons depending on where we are in their story and who moves to the forefront of the episode being told. There is literally nothing given to us by a narration that couldn't have been dealt with by adding one or two lines of dialogue during a given scene.
And then there's that weird ending. Don't worry, this isn't a spoiler, but there's essentially a curtain call for every actor who appears in the film. Everyone is singing and dancing in the street together, and when the song is over, they all freeze in place... for a long time... as if waiting for applause that will never come. I think that sums up my feelings about JERSEY BOYS perfectly. If you're still interested in the film, go buy the soundtrack album—it's like a highlights reel without all the Italian stereotypes and music industry cliches.