Jersey Boys: Clint Eastwood Directs the Broadway Musical Adaptation

Jersey Boys

Opens Fri., June 20 at Sundance and other theaters. Rated R. 134 minutes.

They didn’t have a member die in a plane crash or overdose on drugs, so the backstage saga of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons mostly remained out of the public eye. Until, of course, the 2005 Broadway smash Jersey Boys, a still-running musical that revealed a few genuinely colorful tales lurking in the backstory of the falsetto-driven vocal group. That property comes to the screen under the calm guidance of director Clint Eastwood—and though more a jazz man, he appears to have responded to the late-’50s/early-’60s period and the ironies beneath this success story.

Turns out the original members of the Four Seasons emerged from a milieu not far removed from the wiseguy world of GoodFellas—a comparison that becomes delightfully concrete in one of the story’s revelations. In the case of self-appointed group leader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza from Boardwalk Empire), the mob connections are deep and troublesome, including the protection of a local godfather (Christopher Walken). The movie presents Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, a veteran of the stage show) as a much straighter arrow, but even he understands the value of having friends in the right places. (The other Seasons are played by Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda.) It would seem natural to apply a little Scorsese-like juice to this story, but Eastwood goes the other way: The film exudes a droll humor about all this, as though there really isn’t too much to get excited about.

This applies even to the music, including the amusing re-creations of American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show during their clean-scrubbed heyday. (“Sherry” gave the boys their first #1 in 1962.) Most of the characters speak in awe of Valli’s voice (Walken has a great moment getting teary-eyed at one of teenage Frankie’s maudlin ballads), though the sheer oddness of his amazing caterwaul isn’t much remarked upon. Although Young is an engaging actor—his New Jersey slouch is expert—his singing can’t match the force of Valli’s octave-scampering range, so high-pitched hits such as “Rag Doll” and “Walk Like a Man” lose a bit of oomph. Despite some third-act blandness, Jersey Boys is quite likable overall. Eastwood’s personality comes through in the film’s relaxed portrait of the virtues of hard work and the value of a handshake agreement. This may be the least neurotic musical biopic ever made.

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