"Jersey Boys" the movie is a different, more sedate animal than "Jersey Boys" the Broadway musical. Often this happens when a stage success comes to the screen, even with many of the same performers and artistic team members on board. Changes are made; ardent fans of the original are variously pleased or disappointed. And in this case, those who missed the theatrical edition of the tale of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons — how they found their sound and wrestled with temptations — may wonder what the fuss was about.
The hits keep on coming: "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "December, 1963" and many more, including that uniquely addictive gush of romantic '60s desperation, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You." They may be enough. Full of genial showbiz cliches and mobbed-up sweeties, it's an easy movie to take.
It is also an uncertainly stylized one, with a drab sense of atmosphere at odds with the material's punchy theatrics. Like the recent film version of "August: Osage County" (now there's a musical!), "Jersey Boys" labors under a case of directorial miscasting, that of legendary filmmaker Clint Eastwood at the helm of a whiz-bang jukebox tuner.
Onstage the show was nothing if not speedy under the direction of Des McAnuff. The musical's librettists, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, adapted it for the screen, retaining (though downplaying) the basic structure allowing each of the Four Seasons a chance to relay the group's origin myth his way. It begins in Belleville, N.J., in 1951 and ends with a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction, complete with unfortunate old-age makeup, in 1990. Valli and songwriter Bob Gaudio serve as executive producers of the film, so you know they're going to come off extremely well in relation to the other two, Nick Massi and Tommy DeVito.
What did the Four Seasons have that so many other groups lacked? Start with Valli's falsetto, which in its heyday sounded like a duck-and-cover emergency siren played at 78 rpm. "Jersey Boys" argues that Valli's success, like Sinatra's in a separate, imperious corner of superstar mythology, was all about the working-class Jersey roots and a natural overlap with the local capos.
"There were three ways out of the neighborhood," DeVito says at one point, to the camera. "You join the Army and maybe get killed; you get mobbed up, maybe get killed that way. Or you get famous. For us, it was two out of three."
It's a pleasant shock to see the opening credits of an Eastwood film scored to pop music with some energy instead of his usual forlorn solo piano. The story skates through the decades. As the Four Lovers, the boys are stuck with backup vocal chores for better established artists. Then, naming themselves after a bowling alley, the Four Seasons hit pay dirt with "Sherry" on "American Bandstand"; Valli juggles a nagging wife and needy mistress (the women's roles are neither central nor nuanced here, even with additional screen time); DeVito nearly sinks the group with debts to the mob, represented by Gyp DeCarlo, a real-life fan from the beginning. As the kindly underworld kingpin bearing hardly a whiff of authenticity, Christopher Walken strolls off with every scene he's in.
Valli goes up, then down, then up, and the road along the way is paved by drugs, heartbreak, personal tragedy. We're left with a sense of conflicting versions of events smoothed over by the harmonic convergence of a history-making quartet. Working with his usual collaborators, chiefly cinematographer Tom Stern (king of the desaturated, slightly sad color scheme) and production designer James J. Murakami, the director plugs along, following one narrator, then another, hitting the story points and moving on. The casting of relative unknowns, many from stage incarnations of "Jersey Boys," helps in some cases, hurts in others. John Lloyd Young won the Tony Award for his Frankie Valli, but on screen he's a tentative presence, despite a formidable vocal range and powerful falsetto. Far better is Erich Bergen's Gaudio, a comfortable and natural personality who doesn't get lost amid the swirl of years and setbacks and triumphs.
Some scenes are frankly theatrical, such as the hardship tour of the famous Brill Building, full of hardened veterans impervious to raw talent. (See "Singin' in the Rain" for an earlier example.) Other segments are stiff Hollywood soundstage artifacts all the way, such as the boys' early smash-and-grab robberies for the local gangsters. Others still are played out more or less realistically, until we're hit with a deliberately fakey bit of rear-projection. Eastwood never pushes his approaches too far in any one direction. Those who show up for the songs, and only the songs, probably won't mind how they're treated visually.
Another better-than-average jukebox musical, "Mamma Mia!" turned into a $600 million-grossing movie not because it was a great film (or even a good one) but because it had irrational exuberance in spades, and in tune with the appeal of ABBA. "Jersey Boys" is rationally exuberant to a fault. The personalities feel curiously small within the story. This was the case onstage as well — McAnuff's musicals tend to clobber performers with a ton of visual competition — but his intentions were clear and ultimately fruitful: pace the thing, as McAnuff put it in one interview, like "a bat out of hell." Moderately entertaining, Eastwood's film marches to a more methodical drummer. I suspect its commercial fortunes are unlikely to rival that of the stage version, which has made more than enough in its 10-year life span (since debuting at the La Jolla Playhouse in 2004) to cover the recent $800 million budget shortfall currently hobbling the Garden State.
"Goose it up too much, and it gets cheesy," Valli says to Gaudio in "Jersey Boys," about a song arrangement. Eastwood takes that line to heart. The unspoken B side of that warning, however, is worth heeding: No particular style leads to a movie of no particular style.
"Jersey Boys" - 2 1/2 stars
MPAA rating: R (for language throughout)
Running time: 2:12
Opens: FridayCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun