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Jersey Boys

June 20, 2014
Jersey Boys

The big question raised by Jersey Boys is not about Frankie Valli or any other of the Four Seasons. Instead, I left wondering mostly why Clint Eastwood directed this movie. For at least the last ten years the movies Eastwood chooses to helm have had a point, usually circling around some examination of the character of the generation before the Baby Boomers, and particularly about their sense of masculinity, which he himself personified in many of his original roles. And while the Four Seasons are from that generation, the story skims across any deep examination of their characters, playing out instead more like PBS Pledge Week Programming: the E! True Hollywood Story.

To some extent, this is all we can expect from a film based on the original Broadway musical by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and adapted by the same pair. Yes, it’s about a real music group, and the songs exist as real musical performances rather than choreographed fantasy sequences, but Jersey Boys still has more in common with jukebox revues like Mamma Mia! and Movin’ Out than with Once or Inside Llewyn Davis. The stage musical is a thin narrative — albeit one drawn from real life — stretched between one famous hit and another; the movie chooses to tread the same ground rather than tell a more tightly-crafted story.

And so it’s kind of vague what the story even is. Obviously, it centers on Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on Broadway) and the rest of the Four Seasons. Frankie grows up under the eye of perpetual delinquent Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), eventually singing in a number of small music groups DeVito ran, along with bass player and singer Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda). The group didn’t really take off, though, until they were introduced to songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) by Joe Pesci (Joey Russo). Yes, that Joe Pesci.

But a lot happened over the thirty years from becoming the Four Seasons to their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and the movie is really, really bad at picking and choosing what to pay attention to. The strongest lines are the ones dealing with Tommy’s mismanagement of the group’s finances and the resulting debts, which are only resolved with the help of Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), a mobster and fan of the group’s work. Frankie takes the debt mostly on his own shoulders as the original group breaks up around him, it seems out of some vague combined sense of martyrdom and obligation.

And yet even with two and a quarter hours to work with there’s no time to flesh out the relationship between Tommy and Frankie to really explain this key dramatic turn in the strongest storyline in the whole movie. We also have to spend time on Frankie’s volatile relationship with his wife, Mary (Renée Marino), and estrangement from his daughter, Francine (Freya Tingley). The marriage is painted almost entirely in tropes and stereotypes; the scene where they meet plays out with all the sensitivity and realism of a sketch on Saturday Night Live. And while I don’t doubt that Francine’s death was a major event in Frankie’s life, all we get of their relationship is three short, barely-memorable scenes. Frankie says she can sing, and she was supposed to have a burgeoning career of her own, but we never see or hear it. We see two other daughters, but never learn their names, and never hear that the oldest of them fell to her death from a fire escape six months before Francine’s overdose.

To be sure: Frankie Valli’s home life had more than it’s share of tragedy, and could easily make for its own movie — probably on Lifetime — but we only ever get clips of it here and there, and it mostly serves to take up time that could be better spent fleshing out the band’s stories. In trying to cover everything, the movie tells none of the stories with any real depth or insight. This may work for a musical revue on the Broadway stage, but on the screen, in the hands of a director with Eastwood’s talent for character, it’s a colossal waste.

Of course, this is still based on a musical revue, and the film comes most alive when the four are on stage or in the recording studio, singing and performing. It’s the one time when we don’t notice how washed-out and hazy all the shots are. Maybe it’s meant to suggest the old trope about a performer’s life offstage being unsatisfying next to the glamour of being in the limelight, but again there’s nothing else in the script to back up this theme.

The songs are good, sure, and if you’re old enough to have grown up with them you’ll surely love to hear them again. But you could hear them over and over if you bought the soundtrack album, or one of the many compilation albums the Four Seasons put out over the years.

Worth It: no.
Bechdel Test: fail.

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