Film Review: JERSEY BOYS
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Directed by Clint Eastwood
Produced by Clint Eastwood, Graham King and Robert Lorenz
Executive Producers, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli
Screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Based on “Jersey Boys” by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice
Starring John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michale Lamenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken, Mike Doyle
Music, songs and lyrics by Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe
Cinematography by Tom Stern
Film history is littered with somewhat-disappointing adaptations of hit Broadway stage musicals, with many of those disappointing results due to an oddball film-centric tendency to ignore some of the basic cast and crew members that made those stage musicals a success in the first place. However, film history, thankfully, is also stock-full of successful, highly-praised and well-liked hit adaptations of hit stage musicals wherein the film’s production officials wisely included the active participation of those original stage cast and crew members, including everyone from producers and directors and choreographers to stage actors, singers and dancers.
Fortunately for everyone, Clint Eastwood’s energetic, entertaining and successful film adaptation of “Jersey Boys,” the hit Broadway stage musical about the pop group The Four Seasons, falls completely in the latter category—and, notably, because Eastwood and his co-producers wisely included the active participation of actors and crew members from the Broadway and touring productions of “Jersey Boys,” including: John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli; Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio; Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi; Renee Marino as Mary Delgado; Erica Piccininni as Lorraine; Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice as screenwriters, adapting their own script from the stage musical; and, as executive producers, the real-life musicians from The Four Seasons, Bob Gaudio and Frankie Valli.
This is how a successful film adaptation of a successful stage musical is accomplished. And it’s not rocket science: The production should indeed include cast and crew from the original stage production. It’s that simple. For another recent, highly-successful and well-liked example, the producers and director of 012’s successful film version of “Les Miserables” wisely included many production, crew and cast members from various stage productions of the classic musical.
Eastwood has crafted a fast-paced, fun, funny (there is much sly and clever humor and, briefly, broad humor throughout “Jersey Boys”), and thoroughly enjoyable film version of “Jersey Boys” that will satisfy fans of the stage musical.
Eastwood, Brickman, Elice and company wisely maintain many of the stage-centric elements that made the play so unique and entertaining (and, yes, this reviewer saw “Jersey Boys” on the stage, in a superb national touring production at Baltimore’s Hippodrome theater), including: a constant, basic focus on the music throughout, and there is a ton of quality music; a lack of sappy and schmaltzy overly-cute song-and-dance stage and film musical clichés and conventions (those clichés and conventions indeed work sometimes–and sometimes they don’t work); frequent first-person narrative lines directed straight to the camera that, yes, break the fourth wall—admittedly, a risky device that could alienate or annoy some viewers—but provide a funny, insightful, roving storyline that keeps the story, script and action cohesive and constantly moving forward; a deft, workable and impressive combination of drama, humor, music, emotion, popular culture, rock and pop music history, entertainment business history (there are allusions to certain aspects of entertainment history throughout the film, without being obvious or over-stated); show biz pitfalls, hazards and tragedies; themes and messages about life in general that transcend anything having to do with music or show biz; and even a touch of mob culture, history and background—based on real-life events, it should be noted. So anyone who has not yet seen “Jersey Boys” on stage and who thinks the musical is simply a simple jukebox musical without any depth, a good bit of background for such folks is to relate that “Jersey Boys”—on stage and on film—includes many elements of drama, comedy and even tragedy, and has several layers of depth that successfully lift the stage musical and the film far above your average, everyday, clichéd musical, jukebox or otherwise.
And that depth and range adds to the fullness of the film. However, at the same time, Eastwood also wisely breaks free of the basic limitations of a musical produced on a stage in a theater and successfully expands the play to become a real film, deftly using all of film’s boxes and bags of tricks and advantages to fully create a film experience, with very real filmic qualities. There are swooping, swishing, diving camera shots; an active, smartly rhythmic sense of musical timing to the editing, especially during the musical numbers; great camera shots, in general; wonderfully evocative period locations, sets, props, cars and costumes (beautifully evoking many intricately detailed period aspects of the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s) and toward the end, even quality make-up (when many of the main characters are portrayed as older versions of themselves) that help define the film’s historical and cultural era and sense of time; and, naturally, of course, various well-crafted tracking, dollying and panning shots that keep the film active, involved and upbeat, even during the more sad, bittersweet and tragic moments. Clint Eastwood is an accomplished, wonderfully insightful film director, and he maintains his successful track record with “Jersey Boys,” making sure that he makes a film, but also makes a production that maintains respect, honor and appreciation toward the original stage musical.
“Jersey Boys” tells the at-times frenzied, crazy, hilarious, comedic, positive, negative, scary, frightful and, yes tragic rock and pop music story of The Four Seasons, a successful pop group of four highly-charged and highly-talented musicians—Frankie Valli, Bob Gaudio, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito–who sang, danced and performed themselves literally straight off the streets of Jersey to eventually dominate the rock and pop charts with a string of incredibly melodic, well-sung, well-crafted and eternally memorable chart-topping songs during the 1960s and 1970s. Those memorable songs—mostly written by keyboardist and singer Gaudio and unofficial fifth member, producer, composer and writer Bob Crewe—include “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (that song’s inception being an especially comic moment in the film), “Walk Like a Man,” “Candy Girl,” “Ain’t That a Shame,” “Working My Way Back to You,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “Who Loves You” and “December, 1963 (Oh, What a Night.” The group’s heyday in terms of hit singles was really 1960 to 1966, but the band never stopped writing, composing, recording, releasing—and performing. Even today, in 2014, lead singer Frankie Valli and an updated version of The Four Seasons, with different members, continue to perform—54 years after the group became The Four Seasons and 61 years after Frankie Valli, then Frankie Valley, released his first commercial release in 1953. Frankie Valli, born Francesco Stephen Castelluccio, is now 80 years old.
Clint Eastwood, it should be noted, relevantly, is 84 years old. Everyone should be as fortunate, talented and full of life, energy and vitality to tour and sing at 80 and to produce and direct a major motion picture musical at 84. Age is but a number, of course, and the collective experience, knowledge and education of the respective show business backgrounds of Eastwood, Valli, Gaudio and Brickman collectively add another element that contributes to the success of the film version of “Jersey Boys.”
It should be strongly noted, for those who are unfamiliar with Eastwood’s very real, very long, and, at times, very successful, association with music, that Clint Eastwood is a composer, singer and very strong music fan, in several genres. Interestingly, in the early 1960s—literally at the same time that The Four Seasons were taking off—Eastwood cut a string of successful country music hits. Really. Eastwood sang in the 1969 film musical “Paint Your Wagon,” including a memorable duet with fellow tough-guy Lee Marvin. Eastwood has composed themes for several of his films, including “Unforgiven,” “A Perfect World” and “The Bridges of Madison County.” Eastwood sang duets on the soundtracks of “Bronco Billy” and “Any Which Way You Can.” And Eastwood has produced and directed two films centered on music—“Honkytonk Man,” about a country singer, and “Bird,” about jazz musician Charlie Parker. So Clint Eastwood is no stranger to music.
“Jersey Boys” tells the very-real-life-based story about how Valli, Gaudio, DeVito and Massi worked their way into the music business in the 1950s (when they performed under different names before becoming The Four Seasons in 1960) and 1960s. It wasn’t easy. They had flops and failures and small crowds. They had the requisite rotten gigs in rotten places run by rotten people for rotten pay. They had doors slammed in their faces. They had problems with business deals, managers, contracts, debt, partying, groupies, gigs, girlfriends, producers, record companies, more girlfriends, wives, kids, friends and acquaintances—and even the mob, complete with threats of violence toward the band members–and it’s all told up there on the screen. There is plenty of story action, plots and subplots, but the original script and the screenplay by Brickman and Elice smartly keeps the story moving at a brisk, but not too brisk pace, with the aforementioned music, and, again, with the smooth combination of drama, comedy and tragedy that keeps the story fresh, always interesting and balanced between the fantasy-like life of a pop star and the very downside and negative consequences of a life in show business.
Some naysayers will counter that, indeed, many of these show business story aspects—the debts, the contracts, the bad gigs, infighting among band members, doors slammed in their faces—are, natch, stage, film and show business clichés. They are right—they are clichés. But what happened to The Four Seasons—just like what happened to hundreds of other groups—is real. That always helps keep the at-times unbelievable or apparently clichéd story aspects grounded in reality. If it really happened, then that can negate the cliché arguments. Additionally, “Jersey Boys,” in the stage and film versions, tells The Four Seasons’ story with uncensored, straightforward, in-your-face and, at times, wholly stark honesty, clarity and reality. Again, that real-life honesty that is clearly displayed—the fights among band members, the domestic fights, the arguments with business associates, the band’s various troubles in business, the debt that the band scarily amasses, the threats from real-life mobsters, the arguments with kids and girlfriends and wives—presents a balance and a counter-argument to any suggestions that certain story elements are overly familiar, clichéd or tired.
The Four Seasons famously ran up a huge debt to very real tough-guy mobsters who, somewhat bluntly, suggested that, er, ah, well, there might be some unpleasant consequences and certain painful measures taken if said debts were not taken care of in a timely manner. Enter a lifelong, longtime friend, mentor and caregiver to the band, mobster Gyp DeCarlo, strongly, humorously and, most importantly, wisely and insightfully portrayed by the always-reliable Christopher Walken. Walken takes, again, would could be a stock clichéd character and gives him a fatherly, teacher-like, mentor-like quality that, yes, immediately makes the viewer relate to and even like him. He is, at times, humorous, understanding, educational, fatherly, and even tough with these young, talented, troublemaker street-tough musicians who rely on DeCarlo to not only help them out, but also bail them out, guide them and mentor them. DeCarlo proves to be a guiding light to The Four Seasons throughout their career, and, not overstating the case, he basically saves their lives, or at least their limbs. Walken manages to portray a multi-layered character with his unique voice, stature and facial expression—always original, always insightful, always seemingly coming out of left field, from an actor who retains his unique, unpredictable qualities and ability to portray characters in a similarly unique and unpredictable manner. Walken accomplished the same feat in Steven Spielberg’s excellent “Catch Me if You Can,” stealing scenes right out from under Leonardo DeCaprio and Tom Hanks.
As mentioned, Eastwood wisely cast several extremely-talented performers from Broadway and touring productions of stage versions of “Jersey Boys,” adding to the success of the film. John Lloyd Young, the center of the film in terms of the story, his character and his multi-layered portrayal, plays Valli excellently on several levels–as the somewhat innocent babe-in-the-woods teenager with a golden voice, which Valli was, onward to Valli as a young adult with a wife and kids to a middle-aged man relentlessly touring to pay off DeVito’s mountain of mobster debts, to an older man enjoying his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. All the while singing his heart out in his own golden voice, stealing the film straight out from everyone else. Young originated the role of Valli in the Broadway version of “Jersey Boys,” winning a Tony Award and myriad other roles for his portrayal. Young is equally excellent in the film. As Valli/Young would sing, you can’t take your eyes off of him. Erich Bergen, as Bob Gaudio, played the role of Gaudio in the first national touring production of “Jersey Boys,” as well as in the Las Vegas and Los Angeles productions of the musical. Bergen shines and excels as Gaudio, a difficult role because the real-life Gaudio was a somewhat non-traditional Jersey kid, even though he was straight out of Jersey. Michael Lomenda plays band member Nick Massi, and Lomenda played Massi in the first national tour of the musical. Lomenda also excels as the band member who faught with and struggled with his early fame and lot in life—and who eventually left the band in 1965, at the height of the group’s popularity. Rounding out the portrayals of The Four Seasons is stage, film and television actor Vincent Piazza as DeVito, the original tough-guy, street-smart, trouble-prone and conflicted musician/crook/con artist member of the band. DeVito is also a difficult character—while a talented musician onstage, offstage he is a complete wreck, irresponsible, not trustworthy, and prone to gambling, drinking, piling up debt—and violence. Yet again, Piazza ably presents a difficult two-sided character—a talent on one hand, and a violent thug on the other. All four actors simply excel in their screen portrayals of these very real-life musicians.
Additionally, supporting actors Renee Marino, who plays Mary Delgado, has appeared as Mary in a national touring production of “Jersey Boys” and in a Broadway production of the play. And Erica Piccininni, who plays Valli’s second wife Lorraine, made her Broadway debut in the original company of “Jersey Boys.” Piccininni is making her feature film debut in “Jersey Boys.” Marino and Piccininni also excel in their roles.
Once more, with feeling, this is how you produce a successful film version of successful stage musical.
“Jersey Boys” offers plenty of life lessons and messages about the very real pitfalls of life in show business, of the danger of telling lies and keeping secrets among friends and family and business associates, about the dangers of gambling and drinking to the points where they affect your lives, about the downsides of not paying enough attention to your family, about the dangers of associating with the wrong types of folks, and about the very real positive aspects of respecting, relying on and loving the folks in your life that matter the most. All of that, and more, can be found beneath the lively musical and entertainment scenes, shots, performances and elements that are present in the film.
The film and the play provide a valuable life lesson that there is plenty of life to live and plenty of lessons to be learned behind the curtains and facades of a song, a stage, a film and a melody. The trick is finding the right balance between the show business fantasy and the real-life reality. Some folks search their entire lives for that balance. Some are lucky enough to find it. Some, alas, never quite find it. Those lessons, combined with some great music that is constantly, wonderfully presented through the film, will have you singing “oh, what a night” while leaving the theater. Who loves you, “Jersey Boys?” Anyone who values great music, great singing, great acting, great film work—and great life lessons.