About midway through “Jersey Boys,” a feeling settles in that this story might be bigger than it seems, that this saga of a pop music group is also an important American story, on a scale with previous big American stories directed by Clint Eastwood. The Four Seasons’ music starts to sound, not like disparate hits, but like a whole slice of Americana. And we react in the same way we might to the music of Glenn Miller or Artie Shaw, with the sense that this is how people once were and what it was like.
This sense of scale gradually fades. “Jersey Boys” contracts into what it probably always had to be, just a likeable and not-overly romanticized portrait of the Four Seasons, how they started and where they ended up. But the music maintains an exaggerated appeal throughout. Even if you have never particularly liked these songs, you will like them here. There’s something about witnessing the birth of a sound – specifically “Sherry,” their breakthrough – that makes that sound more beautiful.
Based on the Tony-winning musical, “Jersey Boys” begins in 1951 in Belleville, N.J., an Italian American enclave. Tommy DeVito, who eventually founds the group, has a musical trio, but he’s also a petty criminal and the flunky for a benevolent mobster (Christopher Walken). Meanwhile, Frankie Valli is still Frankie Castelluccio, just a neighborhood kid, albeit one with an extraordinary voice. It’s really an open question if they’re going to make it in music or end up in jail.
Eastwood captures the crazy local color – for example, a clock flanked by a picture of the pope on one side and of Frank Sinatra on the other – without indulging in the routine condescension that usually attends Hollywood’s portrayal of Italian Americans.Though the trailer made it look like the movie might be a celebration of goon-hood, the story of four slobs who made it big, the film’s point of view is different. Success comes about through hard work, persistence and the honoring of commitments.
Valli (John Lloyd Young) is the central character, flanked by two temperamental opposites who are essential to his success. DeVito (Vincent Piazza) an enigmatic, frustrating figure, puts Frankie in the group, gets him into and out of trouble, and raises money for the band’s first demo – from a loan shark. He’s touchy, incapable of admitting he’s wrong and utterly selfish and irresponsible. But he makes things happen.
Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), by contrast, is the farthest thing from a thug. Hired as the band’s keyboard player, he’s not an “old neighborhood” type, but a polite and studious guy from the suburbs, with emotional discipline, a head for business and lots of songwriting talent. The Four Seasons might have needed DeVito to get started, but without Gaudio they would have been performing at bowling alleys for 30 years. The tension of “Jersey Boys” is of Valli finding himself in the middle of these personalities and having to define his loyalties.
Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, adapting the screenplay from their own libretto, locate the moments of joy in the music itself, in finding the harmonies for “Sherry,” or recording “Walk Like a Man.” Aside from that and one wild party, success looks like a bleak affair, especially as directed by Eastwood, who turns down the light and mutes the celebration. It’s the right strategy for a story whose entire success depends on its honesty, and whose honesty depends on not turning these guys into heroes. We come away with a feeling for pop stardom as seen from the inside.
There are some jarring notes, some modern expressions you would not have heard decades ago, and some anachronisms. The screenplay is oddly structured, going up to 1970 and then backtracking to fill in missing information. The movie maintains interest but loses momentum.
I also wonder why, as the young Joe Pesci appears as a character in the film, they didn’t find a guy who sounds and acts something like Joe Pesci. It might have been fun. More seriously, the story – as true stories often will – gets diffused as time goes on, and the effort to make a climax of Valli’s performing “Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You” barely lands.
Still, by then, you’re in that world, sucked in by the music and the performances. Appreciate the big things, but while watching, also pay attention to the little grace notes that make up a quality production. John Lloyd Young, who is 38, plays Valli from age 17 through 56, and he never looks like he’s wearing a mask or costume. The hair and makeup are seamless.