Battling their way out of their New Jersey neighbourhood, Frankie Valli (Young), Tommy Devito (Piazza) and Nick Massi (Lomenda) join up with song writer Bob Gaudio (Bergen) to become huge ’60s band The Four Seasons. Cue gambling debts and creative differences.
Clint Eastwood’s contribution to music on film has traversed both the sublime — Bird, his 1988 biopic of Charlie Bird — and the ridiculous — his singing in Paint Your Wagon. Jersey Boys, his adaptation of the 2005 musical about Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, falls somewhere in-between, a big, clichéd, likably played telling of an interesting showbiz tale, full of great tunes but with little in the way of telling detail or emotional heft.
Initially it steals shamelessly from the Italian Neighbourhood movie playbook as Frankie (John Lloyd Young), Tommy (Vincent Piazza) and Nick (Michael Lomenda) steal safes, flout the fuzz, chase skirt and say “marmaluke” a lot. It’s broad — Eastwood retains the stage show’s wise-guy-talking-to-camera gambit — but fun, the Scorseseness heightened as the real-life Joe Pesci (here played by Joey Russo) had a pivotal role in the Four Seasons story, scoring a good GoodFellas joke. Christopher Walken flits around the movie as a local mobster who cries at Valli’s trademark falsetto stylings. He is more Mister Softee than Mr. Big, but he lifts every scene he is in.
Tonally and energy-wise, Jersey Boys occasionally feels like a film from the ’50s rather than about the ’50s. It’s the kind of film where seemingly without irony, just as the band are struggling for a name, a hotel sign proclaiming THE FOUR SEASONS is switched on. As the boys find success, we get a runaway daughter sub-plot and fissures in the band down to money worries and a creative power shift. It’s entertaining musical biopic territory but rarely steps out of anything but caricature.
Eastwood gives the film an impressive look, beautifully muted early on, flourishing into more vibrant colour as the band hits big. But what he doesn’t translate is the sense of exuberance the jukebox musical perhaps desired. Only in the end-credits version of Oh What A Night! does the film cut loose. It’s fine to go a more serious route, but if you do, it has to be more refined and substantial than this.
Half GoodFellas, half Dreamgirls, Jersey Boys is an appealing take on a grit-to-glamour biopic. What it ultimately fails to do, though, is convince.