All Things Entertaining and Cultural
In dozens of speeches and articles, I’ve warned against comparing a movie to a play or either to a book. “The media, and the tools of expression needed to convey thought and action within them, are different,” I say, going on to state that theater is a not a medium, as nothing separates it from its audience, and then to expound for a minute to two about the written combined with or vs. the visual and the concrete vs. the individually imagined.
The topic sends thrills through my listeners or readers, as you’ve no doubt experienced after perusing the previous paragraph.
Clint Eastwood’s film version of “Jersey Boys” requires me to step into the trap I advise others to avoid.
Eastwood’s movie and Des McAnuff’s stage rendition of “Jersey Boys” are both good. The material is compelling and would be even if the film or theater production did not specifically depict the lives and careers of Frankie Valli and the rock and roll ensemble from which he derived fame, The Four Seasons. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s story is so strong, it would have worked if the singing group characterized was fictional and if the hit tunes that lace the movie and stage versions were written originally for a musical called “Klamath Falls Boys,” let alone “Jersey Boys.”
That said, much of the popularity for the movie and show, of course, comes from the familiarity, and love, the public in general has for The Four Seasons’ hits and Valli as a performer. Brickman and Elice give the saga of how Valli and his bandmates found success depth and humor most jukebox musicals, whether they originate on stage or on screen, miss. Their work as writers make “Jersey Boys” more than a concert with a story wrapped around it. Brickman and Elice’s approach to, and use of, their material allows “Jersey Boys” to transcend the usual Broadway or Hollywood biography or tale of hard-won success. Their craftsmanship and intelligence combine with The Four Seasons’ songbook to account for “Jersey Boys” being a long-running hit that has years of steam left in it. I said a fictional story that mirrored or imagined The Seasons’ climb and aftermath would have been a success. Finding an engrossing and entertaining way to tell a true story is more difficult and so much better, because we are aware of the figures depicted and take a sincere and affectionate interest in them.
Eastwood and McAnuff were each shrewd about how they presented The Seasons and their rise to lasting stardom to their audiences. Well-made and entertaining as Eastwood’s movie is, it doesn’t satisfy, engage, or exhilarate the way McAnuff’s stage musical does.
The reason has something to do with the basic differences between film and theater, but it has more to do with putting the element the audience enjoys most on full display. The stage version of “Jersey Boys” featured more songs and presented them in more direct performance, as if the theater audience was at a television broadcast or concert than the film version. It also tells the story of Valli, Tommy DeVito, Nick Massi, and Bob Gaudio more completely, efficiently, and movingly.
Somehow, Brickman and Elice packed more facts, ideas, and emotion in their dialogue for the theater than they and Eastwood were able to convey by opening out scenes and allowing certain sequences, like Valli going to Manhattan to meet his troubled daughter, Francine, or the negotiation between gangster Gyp DeCarlo, played with appealing humor by Christopher Walken, and the loan sharks to whom DeVito owes $150,000, to play at greater length and with more complexity.
The movie uses the same format as the theater production, breaking the scenario into four parts by having each of the Seasons narrate a section, but, while the personality of each of the guys is more sharply drawn and consequently more distinguishable, the film doesn’t have the same heart or dynamic between the characters as the stage show.
I don’t intend to demean Eastwood’s work. I thoroughly enjoyed his movie of “Jersey Boys” and had a good time watching it and singing along in my head with Frankie and The Seasons, but I kept thinking of the film in bland, complimentary terms like “good,” “decent” “adequate,” and “nice touch,” instead of the laudatory superlatives that came to mind, and heart, the three times I saw “Jersey Boys” on Broadway and the four times I’ve seen it on tour.
Eastwood has made a movie worth seeing. John Lloyd Young is as attractive as Frankie Valli as he was when “Jersey Boys” first played in La Jolla and on Broadway. Brickman and Elice’s script continues to wittily depict the Seasons’ evolution from delinquents who sang well and developed a distinctive sound to admired professionals who had girls screaming at the sound of their names, guys copying Frankie’s signature falsetto under street lamps and in high school bathrooms, and records jumping off shelves and on to the adapters needed for ’60s stereo record players to play disks with wide holes and set to emit clear tones at 45 rpm.
The movie captures all the drama of the Seasons coming to maturity as performers and men. The movie also shows how the music was formed, including a clever scene of Bob Gaudio sitting on a bus and hearing a car horn blare out the three notes that would inspire the Seasons’ first groundbreaking hit, “Sherry.” Eastwood includes all of the germane and salient material, but his storytelling in the movies doesn’t excite or cause the same frisson of joy one feels when seeing “Jersey Boys” in the legitimate theater.
Enough of the comparison. It’s time to praise Eastwood for all of the touches he got right and that add texture and enjoyment to his film.
Eastwood had obvious fun when he included a scene of the virginal and sexually uninterested Bob Gaudio eschewing a post-performance party in a hotel suite and sitting alone in his bedroom watching television, the show just happening to be a young and ruggedly handsome Clint Eastwood in “Rawhide.” He also enjoyed showing Gaudio’s reaction to the capable professional romancer DeVito and Massi send up to launch their callow colleague into adulthood.
It’s a clever touch when Valli and Gaudio are sitting in their favorite North Jersey diner barely noticing the song playing on the joint’s jukebox is a Four Seasons tune, written by Gaudio and Bob Crewe, and fronted by Frankie.
Brickman and Elice’s script for the movie is more accurate in its depiction of Crewe’s role as a writer and creative, in addition to promotional, cog in the Seasons’ success. For some reason, the stage version characterizes Crewe solely as a producer and never gives him credit for being Gaudio’s partner in composing the Seasons’ hits.
Conversely, the stage musical makes a major point of mentioning Nick Massi’s gifts as a musician and the contribution he made as an arranger and orchestrator of the Seasons’ tunes and as a coach that improves the voices of Valli and Gaudio. The movie only slightly hints at this interesting part of the Seasons’ story, making it seem even more logical when Massi, in leaving the group, talks about how it feels to be “one of four guys in a group, and you’re Ringo.”
Another bit of fun comes when The Seasons are booked on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and Troy Grant portrays him with such fidelity. A visit to “American Bandstand” also has an air of authenticity, even if an actor who doesn’t look like Dick Clark stands at the host’s podium, and the studio has the air of L.A. as opposed to Philadelphia , where “Bandstand” would spend its last months before heading west early in 1964.
Eastwood is a master storyteller, and he involves you in the coming of age of Frankie Valli and the growing pains of The Four Seasons before Bob Gaudio, who had already had a hit with “Who Wears Short Shorts?,” struck gold with “Sherry,” a song that met Bob Crewe’s criteria for a popular release.
The Northern New Jersey towns seem right, including the look of the small house with siding Valli buys when, pre-fame, he marries Mary Delgado and, post-fame, lives in for what seems to be the next 25 years.
John Lloyd Young as Frankie, Vincent Piazza as Tommy, and Michael Lomenda as Nick have a fine feel for the grit of the North Jersey streets while Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio exudes the more serious, better heeled young man of the ’50s, blue oxford shirt, tan chinos, and all.
A sense of authenticity goes a long way in giving Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” context and texture. There’s more than one time when the film depicts the loyalty and code of behavior one acquires while growing up in the tougher towns to the west of New York and Newark, and these passages always make their points strongly and in a way that should make a Jerseyan proud.
As Eastwood unravels The Seasons’ tale, he works cannily with lighting, so sequences set in the ’50s are grainier and are muted so much in color to seem black-and white in passages while scenes representing later periods are shot in more vibrant color and have a cleaner, more natural, less artistic feel.
Eastwood makes the relationships between the various members of The Seasons clear and takes time to develop Frankie’s dealing with his wife, his mistress, and his children. Many of the domestic scenes help to set up critical sequences that show the distance Valli’s daughter, Francine, feels towards him and add to the drama when Frankie receives a fateful telephone call regarding Francine.
Humor abounds. Piazza is coolly feckless as he plays the streetwise but undisciplined and unstable Tommy DeVito. Lomenda maintains a telling deadpan as he makes sarcastic and even self-deprecating comments as Nick Massi. Mike Doyle conveys class and exaggerated style as Bob Crewe but revels wittily in the character’s open gayness instead of letting the character become trite or bombastic. Walken is suave, confident menace and a pillar of loyalty and sincere intention to help as the godfather-like mobster Gyp DeCarlo. Joseph Russo is good at doing the, “I know. I’m nothing. I’ll shut up now” shtick of Joe Pesci — yes, that Joe Pesci, as the script says — a denizen of the neighborhood Valli and DeVito grew up in and a meddler who coincidentally puts the Seasons on the right track by introducing them to Gaudio. Barry Livingston — yes, Ernie on “My Three Sons” — has a droll turn as an accountant who gives in to DeVito’s schemes and is shame-faced when discovered in his cowardice. Donnie Kehr is a dapper, ironic Norm Waxman, the man who has to lean on DeVito for the money he owes the syndicate. I also liked the actor, perhaps Keith Loneker , who plays the DeCarlo bodyguard and henchman that sends Francine’s hippie boyfriend packing when Frankie wants to talk to his daughter uninterrupted or impeded.
You can see Eastwood has his actors maintain a “wise guy” tone is all they do. He goes for the comic, as opposed to the dramatic, core of most scenes and instructs his characters to be nonchalant and natural in what they do whether it’s writing songs, promoting music, singing, or breaking knees to collect gambling debts.
“Jersey Boys” has a lot to recommend it. The music may be less frequent and played more incidentally than directly compared to the stage play, but it is potent and gets your shoulders swaying and feet dancing. John Lloyd Young, who earned a 2006 Tony for originating the role of Frankie on Broadway, does a good job in capturing Valli’s falsetto and general tone. When it counts, as is “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and a series of songs at the end, Eastwood allows the numbers to be sung completely. Others he clips. You see the Seasons performing in different venues under different conditions, and this makes a telling point about the fickle vicissitudes of show business, but “Jersey Boys” is more effective when all songs are performed in their entirety and in a presentational, concert-like fashion. Only scenes at The Season’s Hall of Fame induction give this sense of The Seasons entertaining as if nothing else is going on around them or in their lives.
John Lloyd Young has more to act than he did in the stage version. He shows his mettle by doing a fine job in tough scenes with Mary, Gyp, Tommy, Francine, and his mistress, Lorraine, played a core of common sense reality by Erica Piccininni.
Vincent Piazza is great playing all aspects of Tommy DeVito, although he seems so constantly neat and clean, it’s hard to imagine Nick’s accusations that Tommy is a pig who urinates in sinks when toilets are nearby, prompting Walken, as Gyp DeCarlo, to jokingly warn Tommy not to use the bathroom in the gangster’s palatial home.
Piazza, lithe and youthful, has the swagger and lack of remorse of a kid from the streets who can’t give up his larcenous ways, even when he’s making legitimate money as a star entertainer. He is the charmer who loses his appeal as people find out he’s dishonest, untrustworthy, and without a conscience. Young and Erich Bergen, as Bob Gaudio, play the scenes in which they stop forgiving Tommy with a sincerity that lets you feel the knife they’d like to stick in Tommy’s heart, if his heart could be found.
Bergen is properly cleancut as Gaudio, the most civilized and businesslike of The Seasons, the one member of the band who looks at his career as a reward for his hard work, writing prowess, and business ingenuity, and not as a lark to be enjoyed because a boy band that had been scrapping around the Newark area for 10 years finally caught fire. Bergen shows Gaudio’s understanding that he, as the composer of the songs, is the fire that keeps The Seasons burning brightly.
Oh, he knows it’s Frankie’s voice, and Bob Crewe’s engineering of that voice when recording it, that draws The Seasons fans and moves its records from store shelves to houses, but he realizes Valli would have nothing to sing if he wasn’t part of The Seasons’ story. Bergen is adept at playing the various aspects of Gaudio, from the innocent looking guy who negotiates like a shark, to the man who helps Valli transition from the front man of a group to a soloist and who challenges accepted musical taste and defies critics with his composition, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You.”
Michael Lomenda displays the right amount of amused and frustrating irony as Nick Massi, who can, in three words, nail the essence of a situation or put down a hypocrite, fraud, or liar. Lomenda seems to enjoy Massi’s role of the bass who intones, “He said to,” before Valli launches into “Walk like a man” and sets up other musical moments.
Christopher Walken doesn’t seem to break a sweat as the secure and debonair Gyp DeCarlo, a man who can bawl as Frankie sings “My Mother’s Eyes” and keep tight control of a situation when his talents as a go-between and a career criminal coincide.
Walken is a genteel, cultured DeCarlo who surrounds himself with tasteful objects in tasteful rooms and is comfortable in knowing what he’s accomplished as a made man and in the assistance he can give people he favors in the community he dominates.
Donnie Kehr also shows the polish of a professional as the enforcer for a money lender. Kehr’s Waxman appear to be more like a straightforward businessman than Livingston’s accountant. He can pass for the kind patriarch of a respectable family, but he also knows how to makes his threats and convince he will carry out the worst if that is what his job requires.
All of the characters, and the actors who play them, bring a jauntiness to “Jersey Boys.” The story of petty burglars who become rock and roll idols has the breezy casualness and aloofness of guys who thinks of stolen goods as things that “fell off a truck,” or easy pickings they have no compunctions about taking. A tough-guy, dead-end-kid air pervades Eastwood’s film and his actors’ narrations. Even dramatic scenes, like those showing Mary’s alcoholism or Francine’s struggle with drugs, have an edge of Jersey “that’s the way it goes” behind them.
In general, Eastwood’s movie works. It may not enjoy the popularity and acclaim of “Jersey Boys’s” Broadway rendition, but it is a solid piece of entertainment, a smart bit of storytelling, and a film that captures the Jersey spirit as well as the music and the life of band members from a given period, and one of the most important, seminal periods, of pop music and teen culture.