My favourite part of Jersey Boys comes during the final credits – and that’s not meant to be a put-down. It’s just that there’s a particular combination of looseness, swagger, camaraderie, melancholy and melody in the last sequence; the film itself is solid and entertaining, but right at the end it all comes together in a moment of imaginative flight. It’s like the closing number of a Broadway show that sends the audience out on a high.
|Title||Jersey Boys (movie)|
|Screenwriter||Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice|
|Actors||John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, Christopher Walken|
The story of four young men from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey who came together to form the iconic 1960s rock group The Four Seasons.
And that’s probably as it should be. After all, Jersey Boys is a screen version of the hit musical about the rise, fall and renewal of the 1960s vocal group the Four Seasons.
It focuses on the figure of the group’s distinctive lead singer, Frankie Valli, whose falsetto soared over numbers such as Big Girls Don’t Cry, Walk Like a Man, Sherry ... the list is longer than you realise.
The story has a familiar showbiz trajectory: a bunch of guys and a dream, the taste of success and the dawning realisation that it comes at a price. Yet it’s also the story of a small group of friends who could easily be part of another kind of movie, a tale of streetwise boys who get caught up in the world of organised crime. What saves them is that they can sing – yet the past has a way of catching up with them.
Jon Favreau (Iron Man, Chef) was at one point attached to direct, but Clint Eastwood ended up in charge. Eastwood’s first feature as a director was in 1971, with Play Misty for Me. He has directed films with musical subjects, such as Honkytonk Man and Bird, and music has always been an avowed interest and focus.
When the Four Seasons were topping the charts, Eastwood was on TV in Rawhide, and he’s relaxed enough to reference this: one of his scenes from the show can be glimpsed on a TV set in a hotel room when the band is on tour. There are a couple of other referential touches: in real life, the actor Joe Pesci (GoodFellas) was part of the band’s circle, and later employed one of them; he’s a character in the movie (played by Joseph Russo) and the man himself has a cameo.
In its passage from stage to screen, Jersey Boys stays close to its origins. The screenplay is by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the show, and Eastwood seems to have decided not to stray too far from the feel of a stage musical. There are scenes that play quite theatrically, and the world we see is very much the one the central characters experience. Each band member gets a chance to narrate, to address the audience and tell his side of the story, although it’s an occasional device rather than a defining one.
In casting, Eastwood hasn’t opted for marquee names but for three of the performers who played the roles on stage. John Lloyd Young as Frankie, the role for which he won a Tony; Erich Bergen as songwriter Bob Gaudio; and Michael Lomenda as bass player Nick Massi. The only newcomer is Vincent Piazza (Boardwalk Empire) as Tommy DeVito, the most erratic, loose-cannon member of the band.
The dramatic axis of the flm is the relationship between Frankie and Tommy. Tommy is a pushy hothead who makes things happen, for better and for worse – and very much for the worse when he gets into serious debt with loan sharks. Piazza makes him obnoxious but believable and Young effortlessly embraces the role of Frankie, from callow kid to middle-aged man experiencing the loneliness of the long distance entertainer.
Would the casting of stars, in the Les Mis or Chicago tradition, have added something to the screen version? Perhaps some extra box office, but perhaps not. In any case, Eastwood’s vision doesn’t seem to be crying out for big names. The songs are the stars of this enterprise..
There is a term for shows that revolve around an existing collection of popular songs – they’re called jukebox musicals. It’s sometimes considered a derogatory rather than a descriptive term, but it needn’t be. After all, you could almost call the legendary Singin’ in the Rain a jukebox musical: it was an inventive work, but it was devised as a vehicle for numbers from the MGM catalogue.
Jersey Boys doesn’t stretch the boundaries of the movie musical, but it’s a comfortable fit, an assured evocation of the pure pop timelessness of the Four Seasons sound that floats through the '60s to the present almost untouched by events, musical innovations and shifts in taste and style.