To hear it directly from Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), there were only three choices for the youth of Belleville, New Jersey in the 1950s: join the Army (and get killed), join the Mob (and get killed) or get famous. He and his performing pals embraced that last option and rose to fame as the Four Seasons. Chances are that you know their hits — “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Who Loves You,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” — recently given new life by the Tony-winning success of the Broadway show,”Jersey Boys,” and effectively deprived of it by Clint Eastwood’s subsequent screen adaptation.
The most famous of the four was Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), whose distinctive falsetto was nurtured by Tommy in between his six-month stints in prison. With fellow ex-con Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) on bass, the group just needed some great songs and got ‘em courtesy of Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen). (Introductions were made by way of a young Joe Pesci — yes, that Joe Pesci.) Their ensuing success was impossible to deny, with name-making appearances on “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show” and an eventual induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but in keeping with the stage show, the characters peel away from the action to tell us how things really went down behind the scenes.
In theory, the occasionally dishonest blue-collar roots of a squeaky-clean all-American pop group should prove to be a compelling enough narrative, anti-hagiography serving as a veritable rite of passage for celebrities — “Look at our faults! Love us despite them!” — much like “Behind the Music” episodes have proven to be. However, the shouting wives, neglected children and ego clashes are familiar staples by this point, and with the real Gaudio and Valli serving as executive producers, one has to be curious which edges of the story were sanded off. (The profanity certainly hasn’t been.)
Eastwood treats this beloved jukebox musical primarily as a melancholy neighborhood tale, rooted in mid-century Italian-American life to an almost laughably emphatic degree. Two of the boys rely on a local gangster (Christopher Walken, a welcome presence) to serve as something of a guardian angel, especially when gambling debts get deep. The audience-addressing asides from each cast member repeatedly insist that this version of events isn’t really how it was, but Eastwood never thrives in their potentially conflicting interpretations, allowing his leads (stage vets for the most part) to pay mere lip service to muddled memory instead.
The resulting slog mistakes a series of shouting matches and timely revelations for genuinely interesting drama and reduces a soundtrack of classic tunes to wax-like recreations, with each live performance captured in the muted tones and medium shots typical of late-period Eastwood. Supporting characters are neglected by the film until they’re due to be neglected by the characters themselves, life lessons waiting in the wings, before the old-age makeup is trotted out in an unfortunate reminder of just how savagely 2007’s Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story sent up the entire genre of musical biopics.
Only a dancing-in-the-streets medley over the closing credits seems authentic to Jersey Boys’ Broadway incarnation, the film’s first and final introduction of something resembling fun to the proceedings. Unfortunately, for 130 minutes leading up to that point, it’s a story about pop that doesn’t boast any of its own.
The Upside: A great soundtrack; impeccable period detail.
The Downside: A rise-and-fall familiarity to the story; Eastwood’s traditionally languid look and feel.
On the Side: The director makes a cameo appearance (of sorts) as a character who watches an era-appropriate episode of Rawhide.