At this moment, I’m sitting in the Providence airport, waiting for my delayed flight home after spending two weeks on the shore in Connecticut. That’s why I haven’t posted anything recently at Nancy’s Journal. While I was there, I saw and reviewed Clint Eastwood’s film Jersey Boys, an adaptation of the smash hit stage musical. The film is showing on some Chicago screens, and here’s my review.
Jersey Boys is a jukebox musical about kids who found a way out of their deadend lives through music: a rock and roll escape route. The 1950s and ‘60s pop music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons—with songs like “Sherry” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry”—makes this otherwise mediocre film a pleasurable musical experience.
Jersey Boys tells the story in semi-documentary style of the kids who grew up on the streets of New Jersey in towns like Newark and Belleville. There was no way out of the deadend lives their parents lived as barbers, laborers or tradesmen—unless you hooked up with the mob or became a superstar. Becoming the next Frank Sinatra was every Jersey boy’s dream in the 1950s.
Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) forms a trio (between prison stints) but the band is going nowhere, playing small clubs and banquet halls. They need a strong lead singer. Tommy finds Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young), who has a powerful falsetto voice, and asks him to join the band. Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the bass player, rounds out the quartet.
The group plays under different names, including The Four Lovers and The Romans, but their career still flounders—until they meet Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the songwriter and keyboard player they need. The boys rename themselves The Four Seasons.
Desperate for a record contract, they meet Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), a producer at the iconic Brill Building, where so many recording careers start. Tommy, who considers himself the band’s business manager, uses some sketchy connections to borrow the money they need for a recording session. They get help from their consigliore, Gyp DeCarlo (the marvelously eccentric Christopher Walken) and their first records are produced.
“Sherry” is their first #1 single, followed by several more million-selling hits. Frankie Valli (who has now changed his name) and the Four Seasons play big-time clubs and venues and appear on the Ed Sullivan Show.
The boys think they are rich, but all is not well on the business front. They’ve made the mistake of letting Tommy manage the band with no advisers paying attention to the contracts they sign. (Or don’t sign. The “New Jersey contract” is a handshake.)
The Four Seasons took the same path followed by many young musicians in the days before they learned they needed lawyers and business managers who worked for them. The Chess brothers in Chicago lured Mississippi bluesmen Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf to sign contracts that gave them fancy cars and minimal royalties. (Hence, the nickname for Chess Records was Cadillac Records.) Young musicians like the Beatles in the 1960s and Bruce Springsteen in the 1970s were taken advantage of by their managers, earned modest record incomes, and lost the publishing rights to their own music for decades.
Despite their recording success, the Four Seasons split up when Gaudio and Valli decide they can make more progress and better creative decisions on their own. (They formed the Four Seasons Partnership, which still controls the assets of the band.)
Family traumas and tragedies fill out the story of the band and its music. In one final scene, we see Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons (aged, in badly done makeup), reunited in 1990 for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
As the film credits roll, the band members and entire cast engage in a street dancing scene, including faux curtain calls.
Director Clint Eastwood has chosen to give the film a look of faded glitter and glamour and the acting doesn’t add to the luster of the film. John Lloyd Young as Valli is wooden and generally expressionless. Piazza is livelier as Tommy and makes you believe that he might be able to talk himself out of trouble. Bergen’s Gaudio character is at first quiet and serious as a musician and he was probably the most intelligent of the four—and proved it by engineering the split and partnership with Valli.
Valli and Gaudio are among the executive producers of Jersey Boys and are reported to have had total control over the film. But they’re musicians. How could they forget to do a sound check? The sound quality of the film is below average and that spoils its best feature.
Still, the 2.25 hour film is worth seeing if you want to listen to the jukebox of the 1960s. As a rock and roll escape route, Jersey Boys can’t find its way down the New Jersey turnpike.