It’s hard to overstate how celebrated Jersey Boys was in the theater community when it debuted on Broadway in 2005. It was universally acclaimed and sold over 100% capacity every night. It was, for over a year, unarguably the hottest ticket in town. A point of pride in my life as a theatergoer was seeing the original cast on Broadway, and I still rank it as one of the top three musicals I have ever seen. (Before you ask, Next To Normal and Book Of Mormon.) When I heard Hollywood was taking a crack at a Jersey Boys movie, I was both intrigued and skeptical about the concept – musical movies have a mixed track record, but this had the potential to be something different. The question was, would it be a good kind of different?
The answer: Yes, it’s good different. Jersey Boys is a solid biopic of Frankie Valli & The Four Seasons that mixes drama, music, and the occasional bit of comedy with a deft hand. It tells the mobbed-up, glamorous story of one of the most successful pop bands in history without flinching or sinking into stereotypes.
For those not familiar with Jersey Boys or Frankie Valli & Four Seasons, here’s a quick primer: The Four Seasons were a pop group popular in the 1960s, remarkable for lead singer Frankie Valli’s powerful falsetto voice. At their peak in the early 60s, they were one of the hottest acts in America, had three number one singles in a row, and are still considered one of the most popular pre-Beatles music acts, and even during Beatlemania they managed to crack the charts on a regular basis. Even if you’ve never heard “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” or “Walk Like A Man,” you’ve almost certainly heard Valli perform the theme song to Grease or have likely heard a cover of “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” The group was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. Ask your parents.
The story follows the Four Seasons from their early days as The Four Lovers in Belleville, NJ through the latter days of their popularity when most of the original lineup had left and Frankie was touring out of necessity. It chronicles their strong connection with the mob, personal relationships, conflicts, and friendship with a young Joe Pesci, and much of it is far less pretty than you’d expect. The story is told, through direct address, by the four members of the group, who tell different parts of the narrative at different times.
The film is technically a “jukebox musical,” but don’t let that label fool you – this film has far more in common with Walk The Line than it does Rock Of Ages. It may be based on a stage play, but the film is more of a biography than it is a musical with characters breaking out into song and dance at random times. The Four Seasons of the film perform music only in the context of club gigs, concerts, TV appearances, and recording sessions. This film also avoids the common tropes and pitfalls of film adaptations of stage musicals, with characters speaking and acting in a more subdued and realistic way than almost any other film of the genre.
Clint Eastwood seemed like an odd choice to direct, but as Deadshirt Music Editor Julian Ames pointed out, old white men love the Four Seasons. At face value it’s hard to see what the man who directed Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River sees in a biopic about a music group, but once you look beyond the musical aspect and into the mobbed-up drama-filled history of the subject matter, it’s easy to see how Eastwood was the right fit. Eastwood understands how to blend subtlety, drama, and nostalgia (“Eastwood” is Latin for “Not Buzzfeed”) to make compelling cinema, and he works his magic here yet again. It has the same kind of deliberate pace we’ve seen in films like Gran Torino, with the sense of place we’ve seen in J. Edgar and the like, but never sacrifices its underlying charm.
The set and costume design are absolutely gorgeous. It goes beyond the concept of “an old photograph come to life;” 1950s/60s New Jersey is depicted in a way that looks and feels real in a way that doesn’t draw attention to itself. The fashions are spot-on simplicity, the vehicles are classic, and everything down to the streetlights looks right, but at no point does it feel like the film is pointing a neon sign at the set saying “LOOK OUR ACCURATE SET DESIGN,” a bit of a refreshing change in today’s post-Mad Men media market.
Outside of Christopher Walken (in a solid role as NJ gangster Gyp DeCarlo) there’s little movie star power in this film. The Four Seasons themselves are played by stage actors who have each portrayed their respective roles in some iteration of the stage play, with John Lloyd Young reprising his Tony Award-winning role as Frankie Valli. Not casting any known quantities in the cast also helps emphasize how this is largely an ensemble piece. There are a few standout performances – especially JLY as Valli and Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito – but it’s clear that this is about all Four Seasons, not the Frankie Valli Story.
The music, as should be expected, is spectacular. Most of the vocals were performed live on set, which is a large part of why the musical numbers drip of authenticity. On some of the bigger numbers, one might forget that they are sitting in a movie theater watching a screen. Just try not to get emotionally invested when the horns come out for “Can’t Take Me Eyes Off You,” and do your best not to sway or snap along to “Sherry.”
John Lloyd Young, who has portrayed Valli for some 1400 performances, brings an unparalleled understanding of the man and his life to the role, and it shines through in every one of his scenes. This goes beyond simply being a vocal dead ringer for Valli in the prime of his career; he has such a strong command over his voice that he makes the viewer hear how Valli’s voice improves as he ages from a young man into a successful adult. Once or twice they sneak in an original track by The Four Seasons in the background, but if one didn’t know better it would be hard to tell the difference.
One of Jersey Boys‘ biggest successes is how well the movie stands on its own in relation to the musical. Other than following much of the same story (as well it should, it’s a biography) it is a decidedly different entity. Even the dialogue is different, outside of a few lines here and there. This film will not tarnish your memory of the musical, nor will it ruin your ability to appreciate the musical if you have yet to see it. That’s not to say the film itself is perfect or quite as good, pound-for-pound, as its source material. The film indulges a bit too much in band’s pre-frame period, and skimps on showing Valli’s home life. A flashback in the second act of the film breaks the otherwise-linear storytelling in a way that feels unnatural and almost distrusts the audience’s ability to remember earlier scenes.
Jersey Boys does the smart thing and doesn’t try to compete with its source material, instead creating a new project. It’s a solid – and startlingly accurate for the most part – telling of the story of The Four Seasons that will get you emotionally involved with the band every step of the way. If nothing else, you’ll walk out of the theater wanting to hear more from the boys from Belleville.
Jersey Boys is now playing in theaters everywhere.