For all we know, little Francesco Stephen Castelluccio and his neighborhood pals Tommy Devito and Nick Massi did indeed live a Goodfellas-lite life. For all we know, their rise to the top was wholly because of songwriter Bob Gaudio’s gift for writing insta-hit songs and Bob Crewe’s producing skills. For all we know, the newly minted Frankie Valli was beyond loyal to his New Jersey brethren, and mobster Gyp DeCarlo was both mentor and fixer for his gifted vocalist underling.
Whatever the truth, Clint Eastwood’s adaptation of the hugely successful Broadway jukebox musical Jersey Boys is an undeniably underwhelming experience. Given the subject — Valli and the chart-topping group the Four Seasons — and the setting, one would envision an engrossing drama and a foot-stompin’ good time. All we end up getting are endless arguments and superficial show business cliches.
When we first meet Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young, from the Broadway cast), he’s a meek mama’s boy befriended by local monster DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, zombified) and street hood/band leader Devito (Vincent Piazza). As his talent becomes obvious, everyone looks for a way to make him famous — and themselves rich. As Tommy wanders in and out of jail, Frankie becomes the vocalist for his band.
Then, via Joe Pesci (yes, the future actor, played here by Joey Russo), they meet up with keyboardist and songwriter Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and along with bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) the Four Seasons are born. Under the guidance of flamboyant record producer Crewe (Mike Doyle) they soon become international superstars. But infighting and Tommy’s debts to loan sharks threaten to break the band apart.
On stage, Jersey Boys played like a concert with constant asides. Each member of the group took on a different “season,” presenting their side of the story in between live renditions of the band’s famed catalog. They covered the mob-related realities, the ups and downs of stardom, and the personal price they paid for being so gosh-darn popular. By the time Frankie Valli makes a triumph debut of the future smash “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You,” all melodramatics disappear in a pure pop heaven theatrical haze.
On film, however, none of this happens. Instead, the movie meanders like a bad mob mini-series before breaking into occasional song. Gone are the various POVs, though Eastwood does employ a bit of pointless narration to keep the creative device somewhat intact. In their place are pointless scenes of bickering, Vincent Piazza overacting horribly, and John Lloyd Young coming across barely passably as Valli. He may have the chops for a seven-performance-a-week workout on the Great White Way, but on film, he lacks the singer’s drive. For most of the movie he’s a passive participant in his own life.
By opening up the play, turning it into a gangster-less mafia movie, screenwriters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elise (who wrote the original show) do their own material a grand disservice. Eastwood is so eager to get the period details right that he more or less avoids the main point — the music. It takes a full hour before the first recognizable Four Seasons song hits the soundtrack, and afterward, most of their biggest hits are handled in a muddled montage compendium which treats them like a postscript.
In fact, one would be hard pressed to call this a “musical.” Instead, it’s a bland Behind the Music episode with occasional singing, a by-the-numbers rags to riches tale which offers nothing except its street thug cred to differentiate it from hundreds of other rise to fame tales. As he’s proven with Invictus, Hereafter, and J. Edgar, Eastwood’s commercial filmmaking abilities have abandoned him as of late, awash in a wistful laziness that drains all the drama out of whatever story he’s telling.
When their music hit the airwaves, no one had ever heard of anything like Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Sadly, with Jersey Boys, we have to endure the same old showbiz story we’ve heard time and time again, told in a tired, uninspired manner.