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Jersey Boys

June 20, 2014

It may or may not surprise people to learn that I am a fan of musicals. Not to say that I’m at the theater as often as I could be, or even as often as I want to be, but I am fond of the format and I listen to several Broadway soundtracks regularly. The rise of jukebox musicals over the past decade and a half (they existed before that but only since the turn of the century have we seen them in abundance) is not necessarily something I’m against but they can often be a little strange or contrived.

Jersey Boys, however, always stood out as particularly notable though because it actually tells the story of the Four Seasons. Of course, the problem with that is that while we can all sing a Four Seasons song, we rarely realize it actually is a Four Seasons song. I never saw the musical because the subject matter never interested me. I ultimately decided to watch this movie because I’ve enjoyed a lot of Clint Eastwood’s other work and I do like the music.

Sadly, the music is the only time when this movie comes alive.

The film tells us the story of the band, from their early days as a local group in New Jersey to their national stardom, and inevitable break up. The narration is interesting, with the movie (like the musical) split up into four distinct parts as each member explains their perspective on what was happening at the time.

The story is jumbled though and not because of the shifting narration. It always seems as if we’re missing important contextual information. There are countless scenes where there are these big emotional moments happening in their lives but there’s no emotional foundation in the film for these hits to make sense. This is especially frustrating because lead singer Frankie Valli’s (played by John Lloyd Young who is astounding in the role) life is complicated and at times exceedingly tragic.

Even when the other members of the band have their big emotional moments there’s nothing backing them up. In one scene that stands out in my mind, bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) is yelling about how much he hates rooming with guitarist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and uses a laundry list of examples that were established only five or ten minutes prior. It’s very sloppy storytelling that drags down what should be a much more engaging film.

The final problem is that we’re only told the exact year three times. Once at the beginning in 1951, then in the middle of the first act we learn it’s 1960, and finally at the end when they’re inducted into the Rock&Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. This movie covers decades of time but unless you can precisely remember when each single made it big, chances are good you won’t know when something is happening. Of course, since the film muddles up events and songs to make a successful musical, even your knowledge of the Four Seasons’ discography won’t help you. Basically, no matter how hard you try you’re adrift in a sea of time while watching this film.

In most scenes, the direction is uninspired, which is very disappointing given the rest of Eastwood’s work. Everything else about the film, whether it’s costumes or sets or editing, is wildly up and down. When there isn’t music playing the only real redeeming feature is the sort of wise guy camaraderie and comedy of the main characters. The supporting cast are great in their roles, which is probably because they’ve played very similar characters on The Sopranos.* Of course, there are once again plenty of moments where these background characters show up and you will be struggling to remember who they are or why they’re important because this movie is just that muddled.

The big caveat to all of this though is that this movie comes alive with the music.

All of a sudden the direction, the cinematography, the editing, literally everything becomes so much better. The actors are all wonderfully talented singers (not surprising since John Lloyd Young has already won a Tony for playing Frankie Valli) and they have the moves and the costumes to make it look like they really are the Four Seasons. It’s a shame that the one thing this movie does lack are the big musical moments that you would expect from a musical adaptation. The very end of the film (the closing credits) is a big show stopping medley of Sherry and December 1963 (Oh What A Night) that is fantastic and brings the whole cast out for an actual song and dance number. This scene was great and I wish there had been more scenes like it in the film. Instead, we got we got.

If you’re really interested in the musical, go see it on Broadway.

For those who can’t see the musical in person, there are plenty of websites where you can listen to the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.

 

*: The actor who played Big Pussy’s FBI Handler (spoilers for a show that ended 7 years ago) is in the background of one scene for reasons that I assume can only be found on the cutting room floor.

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