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Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Jersey Boys

Clint Eastwood and The Four Seasons

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A Broadway musical based on a string of hits by a singing group popular with Baby Boomers is a bankable idea. But who would have wagered that a production driven by the hits of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons would win four Tonys and launch one of this century’s longest theatrical runs? Reversing the trend for Broadway to emulate Hollywood, motion pictures came calling to Jersey Boys in the form of Clint Eastwood who directs the much-anticipated movie version, intended as a summer blockbuster, whose heroes would rather sing than save the world.

If the laconic, scowling Eastwood seems an odd man for Jersey Boys, remember this: the director has turned a sympathetic ear toward music and musical subcultures in films such as Bird and Honkytonk Man. With Jersey Boys, Eastwood doesn’t simply shoot the Broadway show, even though several cast members reprise their stage roles. His Jersey Boys doesn’t actually count as a musical; the characters sing only onstage, not to each other. They don’t break into a number around the dining room table or in study hall—though well they could. The Four Seasons grew up in an Italian neighborhood during an era of street corner vocal groups. Song really was in the air.

Eastwood’s Jersey Boys is cut instead from the fabric of Hollywood musical bio pictures. It’s closer to La Bamba than Singing in the Rain, and true to its genre, condenses facts and simplifies truth in the interest of telling a good story in two hours (or 2:14 in this case). The reality of The Four Seasons was considerably more complicated than the Broadway musical or Eastwood’s elaboration. And yet, the plot touches on such key points as the link between crime and entertainment in poor neighborhoods. Three of the Seasons were arrested and two did time. Hovering in the background is the Mafia, represented by Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) as the mythic mobster. A sentimental man (he cries when Frankie sings “My Mother’s Eyes”), DeCarlo breaks bones and takes lives only when necessary—but everyone knows that necessity was his partner in crime. Yes, the group really took its name from a cheap Jersey lounge, not Vivaldi.

The usual conflicts over money and the souring of friendship on the road are sketched in. The emotional wear of non-stop touring on marriage and children is explored; family melodrama is not avoided. Borrowing from the Broadway show, the narration is pulled forward by each of the Seasons, who directly address the screen and recount their side of the story. The first third of the movie is carried by swaggering small-time operator Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), followed by the group’s more cerebral composer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the increasingly disgruntled Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and, finally, the star of the show, sad-eyed Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young).

Central to the story is a jukebox of Four Seasons’ hits, a Wurlitzer of song soaring on the strength of Valli’s falsetto. As on stage, the singers really sing in Eastwood’s production with no lip-synching allowed. Jersey Boys conjures an era when fortunes could be made (and lost) on four sterling voices, tested against the acoustics of big city streets and delivering memorable songs.