Film review: JERSEY BOYS, from Built For Speed

Clint Eastwood probably wouldn’t be the first director to come to mind when thinking of someone to adapt to the big screen the hit stage musical about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, Jersey Boys.  Then again, few would have expected him to make a film about the South African rugby team as he did with Invictus.

Like any director, Eastwood was faced with the fact that adapting a stage musical to the screen is a trickier proposition these days than in the 1950’s golden age. Contemporary cinema audiences are more cynical and less willing to surrender to an all-singing, all-dancing fantasy world than they were back then. Jersey Boys is a slightly different proposition though, it tells a true story, it’s about a musical act so the songs form a natural part of the narrative and it takes place against a threatening backdrop of New Jersey organised crime.

The film takes us from the group’s formation in the 1950’s where a teenage Frankie Valli and mob-connected Tommy de Vito first started playing nightclubs, through to their often traumatic ascent to pop superstardom, their run-ins with the mob, the group’s bitter demise and their later rapprochement.

Eastwood is a fine story-teller and in his usual no-frills fashion he depicts the Four Season’s story with clarity and well-judged humour.  Eastwood’s films can at times coast along in a non-descript manner, however, and this film occasionally lacks the thrilling energy we might expect from a rock biopic.

Also, the straight dramatic elements of this film don’t entirely work. Valli’s personal life and troubled marriage aren’t particularly interesting and seem to have been scripted straight from the Hollywood book of rock biopic clichés with every domestic blow-up with wife Mary (Renee Marino) rendered in shrill, alcohol-drenched tones.   A sub-plot about Valli’s wayward daughter Angela (Lacey Hannan) should have provided a tragic undercurrent to the film but it just seems tacked on. 

Like the stage production, though, this film has the not-so-secret weapon of the Four Season’s sensational genre-shattering songs such as “Walk like a Man”, “Sherry” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You” which are performed with a verve the rest of the film often lacks.

Cast performances are mostly solid but Vincent Piazza is the stand-out as the volatile mob-connected founder and guitarist, Tommy de Vito.  He provides a palpable sense of menace throughout the film and suggests what Jersey Boys might have been like had someone like Martin Scorsese been at the helm.  By contrast Christopher Walken, as local mob Godfather Gyp de Carlo, is a too benign and more like Frankie’s favourite uncle.  John Lloyd Young who appeared in the stage production is serviceable as Frankie but is too easily overshadowed by Piazza.  Oddly, we learn little about the personal lives of Bob Gaudio (Eric Berghen) or bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) even though each character has a chance to tell their side of the story, often direct to camera. 

This isn’t a perfect adaptation of the stage musical but it contains enough uplifting moments and terrific songs to please just about any audience.

Nick’s rating: ***1/2.

Genre: Musical/ biopic.

Classification: M.

Director(s): Clint Eastwood.

Release date: 3rd July 2014

Running time: 134 mins.

Reviewer: Nick Gardener can be heard on “Built For Speed” every Friday night from 8-10pm right here on 88.3 Southern FM.  Nick can also be heard on “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly Film Show” podcast. 

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