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“Jersey Boys”

Movie review of Jersey Boys RatPac Entertainment

RatPac Entertainment

David Ives - published on 06/20/14

Clint Eastwood's movie never quite captures the magic of Frankie Valli.

It was at the age of seven that I received my very first record player along with a box set of songs from the Walt Disney catalog. It was one of those perfect gifts you always remember. I played those records nonstop. But after a year of having to listen to endless marathons of “Bear Necessities” and “Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious”, my beleaguered parents gave me a dollar and begged me to go buy a new single. They were probably expecting something like “Crocodile Rock” or “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown.” I came home with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells from “The Exorcist.” What can I say, I’ve pretty much always been who I am.

The problem, as you might imagine, was that my mother was still in shell-shock from having just seen “The Exorcist” at the theatre, so she wasn’t too keen on having Oldfield’s eerie music start up unexpectedly in the middle of the night. It wasn’t too long before she went to the closet and pulled out a crumbling cardboard box full of hundreds of 45s she had collected over the past few decades and told me I was sure to find something good if I just took the time to go through them all. My true lifelong love of music began that day as I placed needle to vinyl. Now, I can’t remember exactly which song I played first, but I’m pretty sure I can recall which one I immediately played twice in a row; “Sherry” by The Four Seasons.

The sound of that record hit me like a truck. While I understand that Frankie Valli’s falsetto isn’t for everyone (my wife, who turned out to be named Sherri, by the way, insists that it’s whining, not singing), I immediately took to it. And hearing his voice combined with Bob Gaudio’s catchy pop songs and Bob Crewe’s polished production, well, I thought I had stumbled across something magical. And apparently I’m not the only one. After “Sherry” hit the airwaves back in 1962, The Four Seasons became a phenomenon. Frankie and the boys released hit after hit, with only The Beach Boys and The Beatles matching them for record during the early 1960s.

Heck, even if you don’t like them, you have to admire the sheer number of hits The Four Seasons churned out. “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Rag Doll,” “Walk Like A Man,” “Dawn (Go Away),” “Let’s Hang On.” And don’t forgot Frankie Valli’s later solo work or the stuff from the group’s resurgence during the disco era. You could easily put on a whole show of nothing but The Four Season’s greatest hits.

Which is, of course, exactly what they did when the jukebox musical “Jersey Boys” hit Broadway in 2005. Packed with over twenty of The Four Season’s most beloved songs, “Jersey Boys” chronicles the journey of the original four members from their beginnings as struggling musicians and part time hoods to their rise to superstardom to their eventual implosion. I’ve never seen the stage production myself, but it won the Tony Award for Best Musical in 2006 and is still playing in sold-out theaters nine years after its debut, so I assume it must be pretty good. And now the legendary Clint Eastwood has brought the musical from the stage to the big screen.

If only I liked it as much as I wanted to. Don’t get me wrong, “Jersey Boys” is a good movie in a lot of ways. Tom Stern’s cinematography is great and makes all the set pieces from the 1960s look authentic. The acting is mostly well done, with Vincent Piazza’s turn as Tommy DeVito, the wiseguy of the group, being the standout. John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli isn’t too bad either, although he doesn’t quite manage to carry the full weight of some of the more emotional scenes. Christopher Walken shows up and plays–Christopher Walken, which is fine as it helps give the film some of its breezier moments.

Also to the story’s credit, while it follows the standard rags to riches and back to rags template which seems to be a requirement of musical biographies, there are a few surprises to be had. For instance, those who are only familiar with the group’s squeaky clean public image might be a little shocked to learn about the band’s ties to the mafia and the amount of time some of the members spent in jail before hitting it big with the release of “Sherry.” Others will find it amusing to discover what a young Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci) had to do with the formation of the group. And in a bit of a switch-up, the dissolution of the original band comes about due to financial mismanagement and the betrayal of friendship rather than the typical scenario of sex and drug abuse.

I can imagine that some audience members might not find four guys bickering over money quite as dramatically compelling as watching someone destroy themselves with booze or cocaine, but I found the change refreshing. It’s a nice reminder that there is more than one way to bungle the obtaining of fame and wealth in this life. Like so many others, The Four Seasons forgot to stockpile their true treasures in heaven while they were squandering the temporary riches of this world. Who knows, maybe if rather than breaking into a church one night to use the organ to practice, the boys had instead shown up the next day when the doors were unlocked and used the kneelers instead, they might have avoided some of their later problems. But they didn’t, and Eastwood clearly relishes the drama inherent in the strains their eventual financial fiascos put on their loyalty and friendship as gives his actors plenty of time to explore the situation.

And maybe that’s part of the problem I had with “Jersey Boys.” While I appreciate the effort to bring some substance to the characters, truthfully, I came for the music. By all accounts, the stage production of “Jersey Boys” has audiences of all ages clapping and singing along, and I kind of wanted that experience with this movie. But Eastwood is more interested in the artists, not the art, and so the music, in my opinion, gets the short end of the stick in this musical.

Songs are cut off before they end or characters interrupt them in the middle to deliver monologues. I mean, come on, most of these tunes are three minutes long. Would it really take up that much screen time to let them finish? Then there’s a couple of weird choices made regarding Frankie Valli. The script has him sing “My Eyes Adored You” to his pre-teen daughter which, frankly, turns a pretty ballad into something a bit creepy. More distracting is the decision on the part of John Lloyd Young to grimace a lot while he sings, as if he’s continuously catching a whiff of some awful smell just off camera. I’m pretty sure this was a habit the real Valli only briefly developed during the 1970s when he was seriously ill, not something he did throughout his whole career. And I know it’s nitpicking, but I’ve got a little training in audio engineering and I’m telling you, whoever mixed the horn section in “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You” needs his ears boxed because he flat out ruined the song.

Okay, I’ll stop. Obviously, I’m committing one of film criticism’s cardinal sins by complaining about not getting the movie I wanted instead of discussing the movie I actually got. But I can’t help it. The kid inside me that sat there forty years ago spinning 45s and discovering music for the first time wanted a lively celebration of those songs, not an occasionally dull light-hearted drama using the music business as a backdrop. Again, there’s a lot to like about “Jersey Boys.” It’s not a bad movie. It’s just not a great musical.

In a world he didn’t create, in a time he didn’t choose, one man looks for signs of God in the world by… watching movies. When he’s not reviewing new releases for Aleteia, David Ives spends his time exploring the intersection of low-budget/cult cinema and Catholicism at The B-Movie Catechism.

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