Clint Eastwood is no stranger to music –Paint Your Wagon, Kelly’s Heroes, and the more recent Gran Torino have all featured his unique raspy tones as part of the soundtrack. His role as director also often saw him doubling up as composer – writing music for Unforgiven, and Bridges of Madison County. It should come as no surprise then that Eastwood’s love of music and film should eventually come to a head with a fully-fledged musical. Jersey Boys, based on the Broadway show, tells the behind the scenes story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, and how the group that became megastars through their 60s hits ‘Sherry’, ‘Walk Like a Man’, and ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ had a much murkier past than their spangled suit jackets suggest.
Focused on the relationships between the four band members, the film follows them from their rough beginnings in Belleville, New Jersey, where being born on the wrong side of the tracks meant crime or fame were the only ways to make a break. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) makes a valiant attempt to do both, holding together a band in the garage while selling stolen furs and perfume from the basement. Frankie Castellucio (John Lloyd Young) – who would later become the groups lead singer under the name Frankie Valli – is the greenhorn on the edge of the gang, attracted both by the musical and criminal potential but kept at bay by Tommy, who realises Frankie’s powerful falsetto is their ticket out of New Jersey.
While Piazza may be a familiar face for some from his work on Boardwalk Empire, most of the stars of the show won’t be. John Lloyd Young, along with Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda who play the other members of the band, are stage actors who have performed the roles on Broadway for years. For most the only recognisable face on screen will be Christopher Walken, who plays the enigmatic mafioso Gyp deCarlo, a kind of fairy-Godfather who appears to sprinkle dollars when most needed. Eastwood’s decision to cast the Broadway stars is by no means a bad one, John Lloyd Young is a Tony award winning actor, and the Frankie he portrays on screen seems charismatic and real – plus, of course, the music sounds great. The hits of the Four Seasons are slotted into the story in a relatively subtle way – don’t expect street-scenes suddenly bursting into song with somersaulting extras, the music takes place in the practice room, in recording studios, and on stage.
While there is a lot that is enjoyable about Jersey Boys, the fact that Eastwood leans so heavily on the stage version proves problematic. Things that are natural in theatre – like asides to the audience – become superfluous storytelling devices, and even the punchier, more comedic parts of the film seem to lack an edge. Essentially Jersey Boys is about the relationships between four men, and how they fracture and fuse under the spotlight of fame. But what might work on the tight confines of a stage becomes diluted on screen – and spread out over two hours (and especially without an intermission and glass of wine) it ultimately fails to make an engaging film. Frankie’s falsetto is the only thing that holds up as the rest of the film falls out of key – hard-core Four Seasons fans may find a little more enjoyment, but for the rest of us, heading to catch the stage show when it comes to Dublin in 2015 is a better idea.