FINALLY, after what has seemed like an endless stream of humorless (and often gross) comedies, disappointing films about superheroes (“Captain America” excepted), and explosion-laden movies about clanging transformers and men in iron suits, I encountered a film worthy of some positive ink. In fact, I honestly cannot remember the last time I enjoyed a movie as much as “Jersey Boys,” and had it not been for a prior commitment, I probably would have stayed in my seat and sat through it again. What a welcome change this was from much of the digital pollution Hollywood has been sending our way recently.
“Jersey Boys,” a musical chronicling the rise and fall of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, made its Broadway debut at the August Wilson Theatre on Nov. 6, 2005, and on June 15, 2014, it reached its 3,564th performance. It was nominated for eight Tony Awards in 2006 and won four of them, including Best Musical and Best Performance by a Leading Actor in a Musical (John Lloyd Young).
Now under the stellar direction of Academy Award-winner Clint Eastwood, “Jersey Boys” has made its way to the silver screen, and it’s nothing short of a cinematic feast. In what has so far been an abysmal summer for movies, this fabulously entertaining motion picture has somewhat restored my faith in Hollywood’s ability to turn out a quality product.
“Jersey Boys” begins in 1951 as a guy is walking across the street in Belleview, N.J., and he says to us, “You want to hear the real story, I’m the one you want to talk to, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza). If it wasn’t for me, we all would have wound up with a bullet in our head.”
DeVito is referring to the fact that he and some of his buddies dabbled in petty crimes that actually resulted in short prison stays for some of them. When he wasn’t plotting robberies or serving time, DeVito, who is a guitarist, and bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) also performed at various small venues, and one night he invited his friend Frankie Castelluccio to sing a song with them, and suddenly the group became a trio featuring Frankie’s (He changed his name to Valli so it would fit on a marquee.) unique falsetto tenor. In order to make it big the group needed two things – a name and a sound. The name came to them one night when they were playing a bowling alley named Four Seasons, and the sound resulted from their signing songwriter, singer, and keyboardest Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).
The group had been unsuccessful in convincing record producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) to record one of its songs until one day Gaudio had a brainstorm, wrote a song that Frankie sang over the phone for Crewe, and, as they say, the rest is history. The song was “Sherry,” and it launched the career of The Four Seasons. Among the hits that followed were such classics as “Rag Doll,” “My Eyes Adored You,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” (The inspiration for this one is a hoot.), “Walk Like a Man,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Despite the group’s meteoric rise to international fame, the sailing is not smooth because DeVito badly mismanages the finances to the point that the overwhelming debt causes an irreparable schism and the ultimate breakup of the group. It’s not until 20 years later that the original members reunite to perform at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Although I found “Jersey Boys” delightful from beginning to end, I think the film will appeal much more to the older generation than it will to the younger set because of the music. Back when The Four Seasons were turning out hit records, you could actually understand the lyrics of the songs, something that is not always easy to ups.
Eastwood did a masterful job of capturing the aura of the 1950s and 1960s. (He even included a cameo ala Alfred Hitchcock.) For those of us who lived through those decades, the film offers a marvelous nostalgic trio back in time, including seeing the group’s appearance on “American Bandstand” and “The Ed Sullivan Show.” The sets are wonderful, the costumes are superb, and the props, especially those wonderful old cars, are a sight to behold. They just don’t make them like that anymore.
Aside from all this, however, “Jersey Boys” is a great story of how these guys rise above their environment and achieve success. In the film’s production notes, Eastwood said this element is what drew him to the project, and he also commented about how enjoyable it was to film the musical scenes.
“I have always loved the music of The Four Seasons, so I knew it would be fun to revisit that, but what mainly interested me was how these semi-juvenile delinquents, who didn’t grow up under the best of circumstances, made it big. They were living on the periphery of the mob, pulling off petty crimes and what have you. Some had even done jail time. Then the music came and pulled them out. It gave them something to strive for.
“There are so many wonderful songs: ‘Sherry, ‘Rag Doll,’ ‘My Eyes Adored You,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry,’ ‘Walk Like a Man,’ ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.’ And each was distinctly different, even though they all had the imprint of The Four Seasons on them. Every day of filming, there would be a new favorite. They’d sing ‘Dawn,’ and we couldn’t stop humming that. Then we’d go back and film another scene with ‘Rag Doll,’ and it would take over, and we’d be humming that. It was great fun.”
Watching this film is “great fun” too because it achieves a great blend of drama and humor, and the acting is consistently outstanding. Bergen, Lomenda, and Piazza deliver outstanding performances, and Academy Award winner Christopher Walken is excellen as Gyp DeCarlo, a gangster who befriends Frankie. And having some of the actors speak directly to the audience was most effective.
But when all is said and done, what really makes this film so terrific is the fabulous music performed by the truly amazing Young. It’s no wonder this guy won a Tony for his portrayal of Valli on Broadway, and I certainly would not be surprised if he receives an Oscar nomination for his work here. In the production notes Young, whose voice defies adequate description, explained what he liked about the story and how much he enjoyed making the film.
“The songs are part of the tapestry of that era, but the lyrics are still relatable to everyone today and the melodies are so infectious. But I think the underbelly of their rise to fame is what’s fascinating. These were scrappy, rough-and-tumble Jersey guys with a dream, who took the energy of the Jersey streets to the recording studio and became a phenomenon. It’s the quintessential rags-to-riches story.”
“It was such a joy to play this character and explore more facets of him in a different arena. I love that Frankie believes in himself and fights the only way he knows how to get himself out there, because his success is in no way a foregone conclusion, considering where and how he’s starting out. He’s not perfect and faces some rough consequences in both his personal life and his career, but it was rewarding to play him warts and all.
“It’s the culmination of everything I’ve wanted to do as an actor, and to do it with Clint Eastwood directing was a dream come true. He’s so interesting to work with. He offered very pointed direction, and yet he also gave us a lot of creative freedom, so the combination of our input as actors and his as a director went beautifully together. Even though I’d played Frankie so many times on stage, this experience felt fresh and new. I think that speaks to the timelessness of the story and, of course, the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons.”
I think “Jersey Boys” is the best film of the year so far, and it certainly is the class offering from the summer’s crop to date because it’s such a refreshing change of pace. It should come as no surprise then that “Jersey Boys” earns the final score of a foot-tapping, hand-clapping, rocking and rolling 10. Don’t miss it!