“Jersey Boys,” the movie, is a slow starter. So were Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Once they light this candle, though, by performing “Sherry” on “American Bandstand,” the film delivers a procession of greatest hits. It builds to a rousing production number providing a glimmer of the energy of the stage musical (which I have yet to see).
Clint Eastwood, whose four Oscars include a pair for directing “Million Dollar Baby” and “Unforgiven,” directs the movie based on the Broadway show that is part jukebox musical, part real-life story of the group that churned through various monikers before landing on Four Seasons. The name was inspired by a bowling alley managed by a character played, in cameo, by none other than Pittsburgh native Billy Gardell.
Frankie Valli, Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio and Nick Massi scored three No. 1 songs in a row with “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” in the early 1960s, but on-stage harmony gave way to discordant notes that split the foursome apart.
Starring: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Vincent Piazza, Christopher Walken.
Rating: R for language.
Offstage is where much of this story takes place, opening in 1951 New Jersey as 16-year-old Francesco Castelluccio is mesmerizing Jersey mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) with his falsetto tenor. “A voice like yours is a gift from God,” Gyp tells Frankie (John Lloyd Young), who can move him to tears with his rendition of “My Mother’s Eyes.”
Neighborhood pal Tommy (Vincent Piazza), a guitarist, singer and purveyor of furs, booze, pearls and shoes that just “fell off the truck,” brings Frankie into his trio, which changes faces and names before becoming the Four Seasons. Nick (Michael Lomenda) sings bass vocals and serves as vocal arranger and guitarist, but the group really clicks with the addition of Bob (Erich Bergen), a business savvy writer who had penned the single “Who Wears Short Shorts.”
“Jersey Boys” charts the group through struggle, success, temptation, the professional and personal toll of the road, behind-the-scenes deals that backfire in expensive, unforeseen ways and the evolution of Frankie into a stand-up guy. The men are never far from their Jersey roots, whether borrowing cash and calculating the vig, making a “Jersey contract” with a handshake instead of a fleet of lawyers or a request for Gyp to run interference for the hitmakers.
Mr. Walken as Gyp is so money, as they used to say in the 1990s, and if his role has been expanded from the stage, it’s because he’s a scene-stealer with perfect comic delivery.
Mr. Eastwood smartly hired Mr. Young, who won a Tony for his portrayal of the lead singer and seems a vocal doppelganger for Frankie. He barely ages, though, until donning a bad wig near the end. Also returning to their roles are Mr. Bergen and Mr. Lomenda, who were part of the national touring company, while Mr. Piazza gives Tommy a wheeler-dealer spark as a streetwise guy.
For the most part, “Jersey Boys” is workman-like and old-fashioned, nowhere near as visually dazzling or innovative as “Dreamgirls” or “Chicago.”
The filmmaker gives himself a sly cameo and includes a famous line from a movie starring Joe Pesci who in real life brought Bob to Tommy and Frankie and changed the course of musical history. You know “Jersey Boys” is taking some creative license when it places the Ohio State Fair in Cleveland, rather than its home of Columbus since 1874, and Mr. Valli’s family life was even messier, sadder and more tangled than what is presented here.
It falls into the trap of presenting the group as if it were in a musical bubble, with virtually no references to the British invasion or even Vee-Jay Records’ attempt to capitalize on the supposed rivalry with a double album called “The Beatles vs. The Four Seasons.” Now a collector’s item, it fed the notion of the battle of the bands with pictures of both on the cover, two LPs and even a scorecard for those keeping track at home.
What “Jersey Boys” does is provide a snapshot of a time, a place and a sensational soundtrack with authentic renditions of “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “December 1963 (Oh What a Night),” “My Eyes Adored You,” ”Dawn (Go Away),” “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” “Rag Doll,” “Who Loves You” and other tunes.
Mr. Eastwood, apparently mindful of the likely audience for the movie, keeps the R-rated nature of the story. Perhaps he knows tweens and teens may not relate to guys harmonizing under a street lamp and dreaming of selling something called LPs long before they became a retro favorite of hipsters.
Movie editor Barbara Vancheri: firstname.lastname@example.org or 412-263-1632. Read her blog: www.post-gazette.com/madaboutmovies.