It’s the Four Seasons live. The band stomps the stage as Frankie Valli’s iconic falsetto wails “Walk Like a Man” – four blue-collar Jersey boys in prom tuxes using music to rank out a girl who busted their balls: “Oh, how you tried to cut me down to size/Tellin’ dirty lies to my friends.” Eat your heart out, Justin Timberlake. The moves? The finger-snapping swagger? The sweaty, sexualized energy that drives a crowd wild? It’s all there.
At least it is if you buy a ticket to Jersey Boys on Broadway, or on one of its tour stops. Onstage, the rags-to-riches story of the most popular pop group pre-Beatles lands every punch.
Onscreen, not so much. The movie of Jersey Boys – directed by cinematic grandmaster Clint Eastwood, from a script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the show – feels oddly diluted. Four Seasons hits, ranging from “Rag Doll” to “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” are dutifully trotted out. But the immediacy is lost. The camera keeps the music at a distance, a bitch when you’re aiming for raw vitality. The result is a golden-oldies valentine sent by a well-meaning tribute band.
There are compensations. Eastwood, a lifelong jazz man, has a solid notion to tone down the Broadway brass in favor of blue notes that envelop the characters in pain they can’t sing away. But instead of blending, the two genres knock heads. It’s hell on the cast. To his credit, Eastwood mostly drew his hardworking performers from actors who played their roles onstage. John Lloyd Young, whose uncanny Broadway take on Valli won him a Tony, is back singing and acting his heart out. But the contours of the role lock him in, as they do for Erich Bergen, as the band’s songwriter Bob Gaudio, and Michael Lomenda, as bassist Nick Massi. The exception is Vincent Piazza, who never did the role in the theater. As Tommy DeVito, the mobbed-up bad boy of the group, Piazza (Lucky Luciano on Boardwalk Empire) treats the camera as a way to add nuance, to get at what’s going on in between words. His magnetic performance feels lived-in and true.
It’s the Mob connection that allows Eastwood to add shading and a sharper edge. Like the show, the movie is structured as a musical take on Martin Scorsese’s GoodFellas, with each member of the band narrating his side of the story. They’re small-time crooks compared to that film’s psycho killer, played by Joe Pesci, who in real life was the Jersey kid who introduced DeVito to the “right people.” You can see things go wrong in the steely squint of Christopher Walken, superb as Gyp DeCarlo, a mobster who weeps like a baby when Valli croons “My Mother’s Eyes” but who knows the band is done for if DeVito can’t pay off a Mob loan.
The battling egos and bad marriages that eventually break up the band (reunited at its 1990 induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame) are the stuff of countless backstage sagas. Eastwood animates the clichés by playing them for real, but he’s still steering the movie to a foregone conclusion.