At the undiminished age of 84, director Clint Eastwood delivers one of his best films with “Jersey Boys,” a well-acted, finely crafted adaptation of the Broadway hit about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
The movie, like the Tony-winning show, traces the rise, success and breakup of the seminal group built around Valli’s distinctive falsetto vocals. In some ways it’s a conventional showbiz saga, but it draws the audience in with vivid personalities, eccentric humor and all-too-human backstories.
Maybe there’s nothing surprising about Eastwood’s ability to craft a richly textured movie about one of the great pop groups. After all, Clint was young when the Four Seasons were young. In 1964, the year “A Fistful of Dollars” was released, the group had six Top 20 singles. Eastwood, a well-known jazz fan, shows respect for the music. And like most of the films directed by the Man With No Name, a meticulous craftsman, this one boasts superior cinematography and a dynamic visual style.
Working from a screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the Broadway show, Eastwood honors the source material. And in a smart move, he cast most of the principal roles with actors who had either performed “Jersey Boys” on Broadway or on the first national tour.
Each of the four band members narrates a portion of the film, speaking directly to the camera. Initially Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza of TV’s “Boardwalk Empire”), one of the group’s founders, gives us his version of the group’s origins. Then we switch to songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), through whose eyes we see the band’s initial recording success. Bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) picks up the story as the band begins cracking under internal pressures.
And Frankie (John Lloyd Young) guides us through the final chapter, which culminates with their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990.
These four performances are the glue that holds this movie together. Like the Broadway show, there’s really too much story, but even when talk of contracts, record-company deals and family issues threatens to grind the narrative to a halt, the actors bring unfailing integrity to the material. They’re simply marvelous to watch.
Young, particularly, demonstrates a controlled intensity in his performance as Frankie — the serious-minded guy who wants to avoid trouble and just get a recording contract.
This is really an ensemble piece, and the supporting cast boasts some nice performances as well. As Gyp DeCarlo, the most benevolent mob boss you’ll ever meet, Christopher Walken has some fun and brings a deadpan sense of humor to the role.
Mike Doyle finesses potential stereotyping and delivers one of the film’s best performances as the good-humored and keen-witted Bob Crewe, a gay record producer and songwriter. Renee Marino, another veteran of the Broadway production, makes a vivid impression in her screen debut as Mary Delgado, Frankie’s wife.
The early part of the film feels authentic as it simmers with 1950s period details and vivid images of the old New Jersey neighborhoods. Cinematographer Tom Stern shoots in desaturated color, almost reducing the images to sepia. It’s a nice touch but creates a problem we’ve seen in other Eastwood movies: At times, particularly during the night exteriors, the images are too dark. The good news is that the color and the images brighten as the film progresses.
Eastwood throws in some nice directorial flourishes, none better than his establishing shot of the Brill Building, once the home of music publishers and record companies in New York. Through the magic of CGI, Eastwood depicts it as a creative beehive as the camera rises from ground level to the top floor; through each window we see singers trying out new material in a diversity of styles.
The Four Seasons’ music was reportedly recorded live during each take, which allows for an intensity and immediacy that would have been impossible with overdubbing. Eastwood scrupulously keeps the music embedded in the story itself. We see nightclub performances, television appearances and recording sessions as we’re treated to enduring hits like “Sherry” (their breakthrough record), “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” Walk Like a Man,” “Who Loves You” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.”
Not until the closing credits do we get a full-blown production number. Eastwood brings together virtually the entire cast, including the smallest speaking roles, to perform “December 1963 (Oh, What a Night),” on a neon-lit street. There’s something undeniably poignant about seeing musicians, mobsters, wives, girlfriends, groupies, record producers and cops all dancing in a communal celebration of the band and its music.
Eastwood is to be commended for remaining faithful to the source material. But truth be told, the film feels too long. Had he executed some merciless cuts — particularly when it comes to family relationships — he could have created a more concise movie that moved along at a faster clip.
But that’s not what he gave us. Nonetheless, “Jersey Boys,” warts and all, remains an impressive piece of work.
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Rated R | Time: 2:14