Movie Review: Jersey Boys (2014)
There are a lot of odd moments in “Jersey Boys” but none odder than when Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, reprising his original Broadway role) and Four Seasons singer and songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) are trying to sell a demo, and themselves (then called “The Four Lovers”), at the Brill Building in New York’s Tin Pan Alley. There’s a great establishing shot, straight up the brownstone, where, on each floor, we see country & western, pop and jazz acts perform through the windows; then at the top floor, nervous, the two young men go door-to-door. “Four Lovers, we sent you a demo?” Slam. Repeat. At the third door—because it’s always the third—we get the following conversation:
Frankie Valli: Four Lovers? We sent you a demo.
Bald A&R man: You’re the Four Lovers? No. The Four Lovers is a colored group.
Frankie Valli: No, that’s us! [Sings] I love you so-oh-oh ...
Bald A&R man: Not bad. Come back when you’re black.
Witness the dumbest A&R man who ever lived. At a time when everyone in the music business was searching for a white act that sounds black, he wants the black version that sounds black. Because Col. Tom Parker didn’t make billions with Elvis. Because America was so not racist in 1959.
Walk like a man
“Jersey Boys” is an odd beast. It’s a Broadway musical that director Clint Eastwood has turned into a fairly standard music biopic. It’s about the birth of the “streetlamp sound” that contains no streetlamp scenes. It doesn’t reference any of the following: a) the birth of rock ‘n’ roll; b) the arrival of the Beatles; or even c), what it feels like to become stars. It just happens. These guys struggle for years, then record “Sherry,” then they’re on “American Bandstand,” and suddenly they’ve had three No. 1 singles (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man”). They will have one more (“Rag Doll” in 1964). OK, two more (“Oh, What a Night” in 1975).
For all that, they never get out of the nightclub. Not here anyway. They don’t play concerts or rock ‘n’ roll shows. Did they ever? In real life? It all feels very claustrophobic and solipsistic.
A good music biopic needs to answer this question, too: What’s the conflict after the success? For most, it’s drugs (“Ray,” “I Walk the Line”) or family strife (“Coal Miner’s Daughter,” “What’s Love Got to Do With It?”) or both (“Sid and Nancy”). “The Buddy Holly Story” gives us band strife and a plane crash. “La Bamba” gives us fraternal strife and then a plane crash. “Get On Up” gives us band strife and a car crash.
“Jersey Boys”? It’s both band strife and family strife. Frankie’s wife, Mary (first-timer Renée Marino), is volatile and angry at his touring schedule, and they break up. Vaguely. Plus Four Seasons founder Tommy DeVito (an exceptional Vincent Piazza of “Boardwalk Empire”) has gambling problems, or some such, and owes $150K to the mob. Plus he’s skimmed half a million from the band’s earnings. All of this requires a sitdown with Frankie’s godfather, Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), at which Frankie, a good kid from the neighborhood, has the band bear the burden of the debt. But in doing so, he breaks apart the band.
Increasingly irrelevant, Valli keeps singing and recording. But then his daughter has drug problems and dies. Then he’s in a diner and sees a cockroach. Then Bob Gaudio writes “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” with its great bombastic middle eight (“I love you, baby! / And if it’s quite alright I need you, baby ...”), and Frankie records it and sings it in a nightclub and people love it. You can see the surprise and gratitude in his eyes. The movie makes it seem that this happened in, say, 1974, after a long period in the wilderness, but the song was actually released in 1967. 1974 was the year Frankie and the Four Seasons began a mid-70s resurgence with “My Eyes Adored You,” but Eastwood has already used that as background music for the father/daughter scenes. Which, when you listen to the words (“Though I never laid a hand on you ... ”), is kinda creepy.
Swearin’ to God
What works? As on Broadway, the bandmates telling the story of the Four Seasons directly to us, the audience. (Four Seasons breaking the fourth wall.) Piazza is particularly good at this. His DeVito is a liar, a charmer, a schemer. Young, the original, Tony-award-winning Frankie Valli on Broadway, definitely has the pipes, but—and I hate to say this, since I think Broadway performers should be used by Hollywood more—isn’t he a bit old for the role now? You look at video of him in 2006 when he was lean and hungry, and he seems perfect. But here, he’s nearly 40 and a bit doughy in the face. Plus he’s not that dynamic. But then I guess Valli wasn’t, either.
Why do the Four Seasons story in the first place? “It all started with a sound that started a sensation.” Right, until the Beatles arrived two years later. Then whatever. The Joe Pesci stuff is interesting—he’s the guy who introduced Gaudio to the rest of the band—but haven’t we seen the rest of this story before? More Italian-Americans from Jersey with vague mob connections and volatile friends and family. Hand to God, I’ve seen these buttagots a thousand times, maron. And while Walken nails several scenes—tearing up listening to Frankie sing, or the look he gives DeVito about his toilet habits—he’s often a distraction. “Frankie,” he says in his Walkenish way, “the world needs to hear that voice.” Cf.: “I’ve got a fever ... and the only prescription is more cowbell.”
During the end-credits, we finally get the streetlamp and a medley/dance number that gives us a better sense of what the stage production might’ve looked like. But for me it’s too little too late. Hand to God.