Jazz aficionado Clint Eastwood hates the bubblegum pop-rock noise of all those ’50s groups like The Four Seasons as much as I do. And there is nothing fresh, special or intriguing about the story of their rise and fall that distinguishes it from all of the other jukebox musicals that pollute the ozone in retro agony. So why did I enjoy Jersey Boys, the Broadway show about them that is still running after nine years, and why do I like the movie even more? I think it’s because, despite all that crummy doo-wop, it’s a universal, American “anyone can make it” success story that has uplifting appeal onstage, and in Mr. Eastwood’s capable hands, the joy spreads like apple butter.
In almost every Clint Eastwood film, the tribulations of the underdog reflect nostalgia for better times. From the heroin-fused genius of Charlie Parker in Bird to the determined girl who slugs it out to be a professional boxer in Million Dollar Baby, it’s all about excelsior for the disenfranchised. So although it’s not a new story, the hopes and hard times of four guys who are one step away from a life behind prison bars and then rise to the top of Tin Pan Alley in the days of tail fins and Top 40s seem like a natural fit.
JERSEY BOYS ★★★
Frankie Valli (Tony-winning John Lloyd Young, the only member of the original Broadway cast) is arrested for robbery, while bandmate, guitarist and best friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) lands in prison for six months. When he gets out, their bass player Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) goes in. Eventually they are joined by Bob Gaudio (a terrific Erich Bergen), a fourth member of the quartet, without a criminal record, who writes its first hit song, “Sherry.” The movie is not only a standard biopic (formulaic at best) about Frankie and his chart-busting musical act, but about how Clint Eastwood the director sees them in the rearview mirror of retrospect. He sure knows his way around a stage mic and a camera angle.
When first we meet Frankie and his friends in rough, tough Belleville, N.J., circa 1951, the rule of the neighborhood is you get killed by the mob, you get killed in the army or you get famous and get out. Of course, there was also jail, where most of Frankie’s sidekicks were headed or had already been. But The Four Seasons (they got the name from a broken motel sign) were lucky. Frankie was a hairdresser who had a Good Samaritan in a mobster named Angelo “Gyp” DeCarlo (a role that surprisingly wastes the talents of Christopher Walken, the only big-name actor in the cast). Frankie was a decent kid. Instead of drinking and womanizing like Bobby, he married his high school sweetheart Mary and spent his life on the road, while swishy record producer Bob Crewe (a funny, flamboyant Mike Doyle) exploited his ratchety falsetto voice—an affectation I still find exasperating to the point of madness but an undeniably popular force in making hit records back in the day. (That screeching soprano kept him out of jail, paid his bills, propelled him to stardom and influenced myriad pop imitators, from Little Richard to Little Anthony and the Imperials.) Meanwhile, Mary turned into an alcoholic and neglected her children. Who could blame her? Listening to crap like “Who wears short shorts? We wear short shorts” day in and day out is, to me, a form of slow suicide.
But the beat goes on. One night The Four Seasons were playing bowling alleys. The next night they were on The Ed Sullivan Show. In time, Tommy was dealing in stolen goods from fur coats to cases of contraband Chivas Regal, plunging the band in hot water with the I.R.S., the mob and their record label, while fighting over arrangements, bookings, percentages and mounting gambling debts. When they finally broke up, it was not because of failure, but a result of Tommy’s mismanagement and greed. It’s an old story about the dangers of fame; it spans 40 years and ends with the group’s reunion at their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 when they sang together for the first time in 20 years and everything old was new again—for one night only.
Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, the same team that created the original book for the Broadway show and all of its touring companies throughout the world, Jersey Boys has intelligence and entertainment value for all ages, despite my reservations about songs I consider to be permanently loopy and terminally goopy. The thrill is in the period details, the compilation of behind-the-scenes facts (the band was inspired by every source it could find; “Big Girls Don’t Cry” came from Kirk Douglas slapping Jan Sterling across the face in Billy Wilder’s iconic film Ace in the Hole) and the director’s way of breaking the fourth wall. The power of close-ups brings a warmth and a depth to the story that the play lacked. Mr. Eastwood does his level best to camouflage the clichés, but let’s face it: pop groups are their own cliché, which is why they rise from the mud, catch on, get rich and famous, then crash. Thanks to Clint Eastwood, the Jersey Boys in Jersey Boys are just a little more fun doing it.