Anyone approaching Jersey Boys expecting a toe-tapping, hand-clapping greatest hits parade à la Rock Of Ages and Mamma Mia! should deflate their chests now: Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the Tony award-winning musical is a rather sombre drama spiked with moments of gentle humour (and songs).
Charting the turbulent career of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons between start-up gigs in New Jersey in 1951 and their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the meat of the action takes place in the early ’60s. It’s during this sweet spot – once the band’s rotating name has finally been settled upon, songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) turns the trio into a quartet, and they discover their sound with the recording of ‘Sherry’ – that the boys dominate air time before The Beatles conquered America.
Eastwood isn’t about to do the fans out of pop classics like ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Walk Like A Man’ but he’s more interested in the group’s dynamics away from cameras and mics. Founder member Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), a petty crook, grows jealous of Frankie’s (John Lloyd Young, imported from the Broadway show) success, while bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) resents time spent on the road. With relationships splintering, it then emerges that Tommy has left the band at the mercy of the mob.
Shot with Eastwood’s signature classicism and painted in blues and greys that might be termed ‘stately slate-y’, there’s elegance aplenty but a dearth of brio. The narrative adheres to a traditional rise-and-fall trajectory while the mob elements play like a recording of GoodFellas spun on an old gramophone.
The cast, meanwhile, equip themselves fine, particularly during the songs: Eastwood wanted these to be as authentic as possible, so rather than lip-synch, all of the actors sang to live accompaniment during filming. Away from the tunes, alas, they lack either the pizzazz or a meaty enough script to truly fire the rows, infidelities and triumphs.
What Jersey Boys does have is meticulous period design, a sense of nostalgia tempered by Eastwood’s desire to again question history as written (see Unforgiven, Flags Of Our Fathers and J. Edgar), and the ever-magnetic Christopher Walken as the band’s mobster guardian. Best of all is Young’s miraculous ability to replicate Valli’s falsetto warbling – if you’ve contributed to The Four Season’s 175 million album sales or simply know Valli from his crooning of the title tune in Grease, your heart will quicken each time he steps up to the mic. Just don’t expect it to happen too often.
Music aficionado Clint fails to match the verve of his Charlie Parker biopic Bird, but Jersey Boys is a solid watch that seeks to deepen the emotion of the jukebox musical.