If Martin Scorsese’s “Goodfellas” and John Waters’s “Hairspray” had a baby, it would probably look something like Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of “Jersey Boys.”
The film based on the Tony Award-winning musical teeters between genres, often evoking the feel of a gritty mob drama, while at other times channeling the toe-tapping tunes of its source material. The odd amalgam of styles is an interesting choice by Eastwood, but by refusing to adhere to cinematic conventions, the movie never really finds its voice.
Based on a screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also penned the theatrical production, the film chronicles Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ rise to stardom, from hoodlums on the street of New Jersey to becoming one of the best-selling acts of all-time. Opening to the group’s hit classic, “Oh What a Night!,” a teenaged Valli (John Lloyd Young) is introduced as a fumbling apprentice at a barbershop, tending to mafioso Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (hilariously played by Christoper Walken).
While Valli tries to act tough, he’s just not as cut out for the mob life as his friend Tommy DeVito (Vicent Piazza), an errand boy of DiCarlo, who discovers his friend’s knack for singing. Along with bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the group eventually becomes the Four Seasons.
The 84-year-old director’s latest effort should, for all intents and purposes, be looked at as a drama that happens to have music in it, as the only big Broadway-style number occurs over the closing credits.
Like the play, however, the main characters do occasionally break the fourth wall (although these moments can be hit or miss). There’s also plenty of music within the film, highlighted by a stunning scene that features performances of the group’s three straight No. 1 hits (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like a Man”) which catapulted them into the big time.
There’s somewhat of a synergy between the drama and music as well as the rise and fall arc of the first two acts, but the story grinds to a halt when the focus shifts to Valli’s relationship with his daughter, which seemingly comes out of left field.
All that being said, the real problem with this film as a drama is that it doesn’t delve deep enough into the grittier parts of the “Jersey Boys” story. The rugged aspects of these characters are sanded down (even their involvement in illegal activities is downplayed).
Eastwood’s first turn at directing a musical-inspired film ultimately entertains, as the cast of crooners does a fine job bringing the personalities and sound of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons to life.
Young, who won a Tony as the band’s lead singer in the original Broadway run, is pitch perfect in his on-screen reprisal of the role, showcasing the falsetto that made him such a convincing Valli on the stage.
Piazza impresses as the controlling lead guitarist and group founder. His time as mobster Lucky Luciano on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” was probably good prep work for taking on DeVito’s wise guy persona, and he’s easily the most complex and interesting character of the film.
Bergen and Lomenda, who reprise their characters from various incarnations of the musical’s national tour, are also quite convincing in their roles.
The film has some big laughs, including Walken’s DeCarlo (which is really just Christopher Walken being Christopher Walken). Joe Pesci (yes the actor, he’s part of the story line) played by Joey Russo, is also a scene stealer, as the eventual movie star was the one to introduce Gaudio to the gang. There’s a great nod to Pesci’s charater in “Goodfellas.” Trust me, it’s just excellent.
Mike Doyle’s portrayal of the flamboyant yet fierce music producer Bobby Crewe is another fantastic supporting character that deserves some major praise.
Traditional cinephiles will, of course, have issues with the story’s structure and unsurprising plot, but fans of the Broadway production will likely be pleased by this adaptation.
Overall, Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is an entertaining affair, but by trying to walk the line between drama and musical, the film often feels like a caricature of both.