mon 20/05/2024

Jersey Boys | reviews, news & interviews

Jersey Boys

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood biopic plays up the mob but short-changes the music

Married to the mob? John Lloyd Young (left) as Frankie Valli in `Jersey Boys', with Michael Lomenda (right) as Nick Massi

Given that Jersey Boys is about a singer, Frankie Valli, whose voice - or so we are told within the first five minutes - constitutes "a gift from god", it's a shame Clint Eastwood's film of the stage musical smash hit doesn't feel more heaven-sent. There are thrills to be had across the two hour-plus running time and enough Italian-Americanisms to make audiences feel as if they may have wandered into Goodfellas-lite.

But the film stints on precisely that aspect of the show that sends theatre audiences to their feet every night - namely, the music, which largely gets sacrificed on the altar of the machinations of the mob.  

One appreciates Eastwood's desire to take the stage source seriously, keeping the writers (Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman) of the Tony and Olivier-laureled show in place at the expense of Hollywood A-lister John Logan, who had penned a script of his own that then wasn't used. And with the exception of Christopher Walken (pictured below), in ominously soft-spoken form as a local mafia kingpin sporting the (wonderful) name of Gyp DeCarlo, the film goes a commendably unstarry route, picking alumni from the stage show to play three of the Four Seasons; the fourth - and in some ways most commanding - is in the hands of an alluringly cocksure Vincent Piazza, of Boardwalk Empire renown, here giving a lot of lip with or without a cigarette dangling from his mouth. 

Christopher Walken as Gyp DeCarloEastwood, too, comes naturally by his musical affinities. Though the 1969 musical Western Paint Your Wagon - "Eastwood sings!" being right up there in celluloid lore with "Garbo talks!" - may top no one's list of his best films, music is threaded in numerous ways throughout his career, from various early Sixties singles to such music-themed movies as Bird and Honkytonk Man. And while one can applaud the director's desire to dig deeper and more darkly into this material for the movies than the stage juggernaut will ever want to, the simple fact is that we want Frankie and the Four Seasons to show us more of the vocal glory without which this film wouldn't exist to begin with.

The film begins in Belleville, New Jersey, in 1951, as a 16-year-old hairdresser called Frankie Castelluccio (the Valli, spelled pointedly with an "i" and not an "ey" came later) is honing that famous falsetto, getting in and out of trouble, and generally disregarding his mother's request that he be home by 11 pm. Retaining the direct-to-the-audience narration from the musical that is shared out among the four leads, the movie gives initial pride of place to Piazza's troublemaking Tommy DeVito, the group's spokesman and hothead and easily the most charismatic of the quartet we see on screen. Before long, the straight-arrow Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen, a stage actor blessed with screen star good looks) has signed on, an introduction effected by no less a personality than eventual Oscar-winner Joe Pesci. The foursome is completed by bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) who died in 2000, so we'll never know how he might feel about being referred to as their equivalent Ringo Starr.  

We get the internecine frictions between the group, alongside various returns to Frankie's domestic rough-and-tumble on the home front - though I'm not sure the lyrics to "My Eyes Adored You" really work as an outpouring of affection from Frankie to his troubled daughter, Francine, who died in 1980. The recording sequences get a pick-me-up from Mike Doyle as the group's celebrated producer and co-songwriter Bob Crewe, here presented as fairly flamboyantly gay: a reminder that behind the surface machismo of the hard-boiled milieu beat all manner of other passions.

The Four Seasons from Clint Eastwood's filmAnd the songs - ranging from the doo-wop dazzle of "Sherry" through to the finger-clickin' strut of "Walk Like a Man", "Let's Hang On", and (my personal favourite) "Rag Doll"? They are there like teases from some glorious onstage life even as we trawl the corridors backstage, their collective power reserved for a lovely final credit sequence in which the show's choreographer, Sergio Trujillo, puts the cast through their paces. One only wishes that Young's voice didn't sound as frayed at times as it does here, a consequence perhaps of his unyielding commitment to portraying Frankie on stage. (The 38-year-old performer did a brief run on the West End in the role earlier this year.) The real Frankie's preternaturally high register - a function of helium or what? - can be punishing on the voice, and at least Young connects up to the part in other important ways; he knows the role from the inside out, not just as a series of vocal tricks and affectations. 

Visually, the film inhabits the desaturated realm that has become the Eastwood norm and that after a while begins to seem a metaphor for the movie as a whole. As impressive as it is, and Manhattanites in particular will relish the sequence where the camera pans up the facade of the legendary Brill Building at 1619 Broadway, one is left posing a single overarching question: could we have just a bit more colour? 

Overleaf: watch the trailer for Jersey Boys


One can appreciate Eastwood's desire to dig deeper and more darkly into this material for the movies than an eight-times-a-week stage juggernaut is ever going to want to do


Editor Rating: 
Average: 3 (1 vote)

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