Who can say no to a sappy singalong?

Who can say no to a sappy singalong? June 20, 2014

Review of Jersey Boys, Directed and Produced by Clint Eastwood

Who doesn’t like musicals? Only curmudgeons. And you’d have to be pretty curmudgeonly not to like Jersey Boys, with its rags-to-riches storyline and its feel-good, doo-wopping songs. Heck, it’s hard not to sing along. Clint Eastwood brings this Broadway-Hollywood hybrid to the silver screen, and he does a good—if not spectacularly original—job of telling the story of the rise and demise of Franki Valli and the Four Seasons.

The film opens on Belleville, New Jersey, in 1951, where Frankie (John Lloyd Young) is a hairdresser-in-training with a unique voice and dreams of stardom. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), an older boy with a long rap sheet, takes Frankie under his wing, lets him into his band with Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and introduces him to his “mentor,” Gyp DeCarlo, played by Christopher Walken, who gives a very convincing performance as perhaps the most benign mobster in film history (He cries during a song about a mother’s love). The movie follows their path to fame, from Frankie’s marriage to his pushy wife, to the moment they hired songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), to their first run-in with Bob Crewe, the posh gay producer who makes them sing back-up for other musicians before they can record their own songs—and who is played pitch-perfectly by Mike Doyle.

It is Frankie’s voice and Bob Gaudio’s songwriting that propels the group to stardom, but DeVito still considers himself the boss of the band. The power structure crumbles after DeVito hits on Frankie’s mistress, and after a not-as-nice mobster reveals to the band that DeVito owes him hundreds of thousands of dollars. The band turns to much-nicer mobster DeCarlo for help, at which point Nick Massi quits the band and delivers the line that is the point of pretty much every rise-to-fame film ever made: “With all due respect, Mr. DeCarlo, you sell 100,000 records and see how you handle it.” So the band breaks up, and Frankie is on his own, forced to travel across America to give concerts 200 nights a year to pay off DeVito’s debt. He hits his low point when his teenage daughter, Francine, who has struggled with her father’s long absences, dies of a drug overdose.

The film never loses its cheerful tone, even while portraying DeVito’s plunge into debt and Francine’s overdose. Staying true to the musical, it passes up the opportunity that so many other musician biopics have taken to be gritty and edgy. It’s laugh-out-loud funny at points, which makes it a hard movie to swallow: It’s a light-hearted singalong to the tale of a man giving his everything to a dream that costs him the love of his family. Right after Francine’s death, Frankie produces one of his biggest hits: “I can’t take my eyes off of you.” The juxtaposition is jarring.

The movie adheres tightly to the feel of the Broadway production, as if Eastwood didn’t want to mess around too much with a winning formula. Though there is more dialogue than in the play, the songs are still plenteous, and the movement of the actors in front of the camera often resembles the carefully rehearsed movements on a Broadway stage. Near the end, in a final scene at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, the band members’ hair looks powdered with gray, like it would be in a stage production, rather than dyed. The final monologues are the same as the Broadway play, and end up being a lot weirder with the camera so close to each actor’s face. And as the credits roll at the end, the movie gives up its pretensions to movie-hood and delivers an outright song-and-dance finale with all the actors—even Christopher Walken gets his groove on.

Jersey Boys is a little saccharine, and if you’ve seen the Broadway musical, there won’t be many surprises. But you’re still a curmudgeon if you go to it and hate it.

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