by Philip Price
History is made up of moments better than our current situations or so nostalgia makes it seem. This obviously isn't always true and more times than not you will feel the same way about the given moment in ten years as you feel about ten years ago now. Time and perspective can cause both more insightful thinking of what once was while also romanticizing it to a point it becomes nothing like the reality of what actually occurred. This is all to say that much of what we see take place on screen in “Jersey Boys” feels a little more appealing than it might have actually been for those who lived it. There is a moment near the end of the film where Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is talking into the camera as he reminisces about the best moments of being a part of his musical group, The Four Seasons, and how it came before the group hit it big when they sang acapella under street lamps. There is no doubt some truth to this sentiment, but were these really the best times in that moment when they were happening or did they become cherished memories with the frame of reference time helped lend? How much have these memories been idealized? In that actual point in their lives those four guys wanted nothing more than to get out from under the street lamps and get onto bigger stages with the only lights being the ones that hold their names. Per the usual, once that level of success is achieved there is always someone who can't deal with all that fame brings. It is even written into the tag line that time does funny things to memories in that, “Everybody remembers it how they need to,” and with each of The Four Seasons giving us versions of certain moments we can only assume this compilation of recollections is as close to the truth we will get, no matter how heightened it might be. The question is, as with every film, why should we care? “Jersey Boys” had the unique opportunity to bring to the screen a story we’ve seen a million times before in a fashion that might seem more arbitrary and authentic to audiences than say the standard music biopic like “Ray” or “Walk the Line.” The musical turned movie was going to tell an interesting story of national treasures rise to fame all while keeping the emphasis and the highlights of the production on the music, the one thing that is the reason for being a star, but never gets the attention it deserves in these kinds of movies. So yes, there are plenty of attributes here one could care about but as the credits begin to roll you feel more indifferent than you do starstruck.
Beginning in 1951 we meet seventeen year-old Frankie Castelluccio who is training to be a hairdresser by day and running with some not so suitable friends by night. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) is the cocky kid in town who thinks he runs things as much as his ties in the mob do. Both Tommy and Frankie have a good relationship with Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) a local mobster who runs the gambling racket, but who provides a fatherly blanket of comfort over these juvenile delinquents. Frankie and Tommy were going nowhere fast, destined to befall the same fate as countless teenagers before them by garnering a record, never graduating from school and ending up in a dead-end job that brings no happiness and little more than a paycheck to support a growing family. DeVito knew Frankie had a gift though and recognized, if not for anything else, that it was just as much his ticket out of Jersey as it was Frankie’s. DeVito already had a band with the likes of his brother and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), but when they pulled in Frankie as lead singer they knew they were onto something and needed to fast-track themselves thus pulling in Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to complete the group. Gaudio was a singer/songwriter who’d already written a hit or two when he joined the then unnamed Four Seasons, but knew he could write for Valli’s voice after 13-seconds of hearing him sing. While the film plays up the mob influences of the environment these guys were raised around and the exceptional aspect that Frankie, Tommy and Nick ever made it out of the neighborhood alive, it is the dynamics of what evolves once they score their record deal and a slew of number ones that is more interesting. The film spends a lot of time developing the drama around each character, some of which could have been reduced to shorter scenes or cut completely but in doing this it builds up our expectations for where we think we know things are going only to play out with slight alterations to the standard formula. I enjoyed the fact it never became about the drugs or the women which serve too often as the undoing of hard work and determination, but that this was instead about the testing of friendships and the great corrupter that is money. Still, there are only so many ways “Jersey Boys” could end and if you’re optimistic then you get what you hope for here.
I’ve never seen the Broadway musical on which the film is based, but as a fan of these types of stories and pretty much any age of music I was very much excited to learn something about the music business in the 60’s. Not only this, but to learn the meanings, the stories behind songs I’d heard over and over again growing up but never having any context as to who performed them originally or where they came from. These kinds of novelty songs become so convoluted through time that the world forgets the talent that made them exist in the first place. Hits like “Sherry,” and “Walk Like A Man” are taken for granted in the belief they have simply always been a part of pop culture, but obviously that isn’t the case and if I took away anything from “Jersey Boys” it was the idea that nothing changes but style and even that comes back around at some point. As directed by Clint Eastwood the film has a somber color palette and a lack of energy that never really is able to get its feet off the ground (we don’t get the first full-on musical performance until a half hour in) as this isn’t a musical in the traditional way you’d expect it to be. Eastwood clearly approached this more as a drama that revolves around a singing group and in doing that he may have lost some of the spirit that reverberated through the group’s music that has made the stage show such a winner. The 84-year-old director saw the rise and fall of the actual Four Seasons so it is hard to blame him for wanting to place this story in a more grounded reality, but as I echoed in the opening paragraph doing something such as that is impossible when you have four different takes with all kinds of ambition and perspective between them and the actual events. What I did appreciate and what is out of Eastwood’s control, but he clearly takes advantage of, is that the groups decline never became about who sung lead and who got too big of a head. Everyone around him knew Frankie was the best and their sole purpose for existing. Everyone knew Gaudio had the songs and the brain to write such unequivocal hits and neither Nick nor Tommy were disputing that, but it doesn’t mean it didn’t cause rifts. Tommy was a man accustomed to being the ring leader, but when his talent couldn’t justify his position he slipped through the ranks and his ego couldn’t deal. Nick might have hung on were he simply taken into account more, made to feel like a creative asset, but did he ever show any interest beyond signing back-up and playing on the records? We don’t know, but luckily Eastwood’s version of “Jersey Boys” at least gives each their own even if it sometimes feels like it’s never going to end.
To that effect we come to why “Jersey Boys” doesn’t blow you away as there is much to like and become invested in here. The performances are fine as John Lloyd Young who portrays Frankie won a Tony for originating the role on Broadway and he understands the whole of the character by this point that he must feel a bit like he’s re-living the creation of Valli’s legacy. The performance that will hit you the most and make you interested in the actor playing him is Piazza as Tommy. DeVito is the straight-up bad boy/asshole of the bunch, but we are introduced to him through Piazza first and his wide-eyed look at the world and its possibilities is hard to not get on board with. Lomenda in his first big screen role does fine work especially in his one show-stopping scene as well as for playing up the goofiness of his role in each of their songs. Bergen (who looks like Chris Klein and Tate Donovan had a child) is the only one of the group not from Jersey and his reserved confidence in everything he does is reiterated in his final piece of dialogue to the audience. Walken is actually given little to do while we get an interesting history lesson concerning Joe Pesci’s (yes, that Joe Pesci) involvement with the coming-together of the original Four Seasons and how he now plays into their lives. As portrayed by Joseph Russo here he is not a distracting factor, but more an amusing side gag that will further entice the audience to read up on what the movie didn’t include about the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons and how many liberties this version took with their story. Where “Jersey Boys” suffers is when it tries to do too much and loses focus. We get a whole third act subplot that concerns one of Valli’s children who it hadn’t mentioned prior that she wanted to be a singer, but brings it up as if common knowledge. There is too much telling in the resolution of Frankie and Tommy’s falling out that is meant to illustrate the values Frankie never lost even if Jersey feels so far away at certain points. These inconsistencies cause the film to go on and on while plagued with that kind of Eastwood melancholy and grey-tinted cinematography. I wanted more scenes that showed Gaudio and Valli crafting songs, of them going to record labels and begging for an audition and anything that offers more insight into this world not everyone breaks into. Instead the film settles for melodrama over insight and extravagance which doesn’t seem to fit the energy of the group and brings their feature presentation down a few pegs.