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Movie Review: “Jersey Boys”

Movie Review: “Jersey Boys”
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You don’t have to have grown up in the fifties to know the music of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons. “Sherry”, “Walk Like a Man”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are practically ingrained in the human consciousness. It’s impossible to hear those songs and not sing them all day long.

Whether that is a happy prospect or not might affect your decision to see Clint Eastwood’s new biographical, musical drama “Jersey Boys” based on the back-story of the four young men who formed the harmonizing band. Eastwood, who as a director has succeeded with hardscrabble stories of boxers and working class milieus might seem a strange choice for what would seem to be a happy, innocent time of flourishing creativity. But Frankie and his gang grew up in a tough immigrant community, their lives dangling dangerously on the edges of the mean streets of New Jersey and the thugs and mob bosses who ruled them.

Adapted from the long-running Broadway hit of the same name by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, Eastwood has maintained some of the theatricality of the show. A typical rags to riches biopic in many ways, the director makes a bold choice to have his actors address the camera at times. At first jarring, this is a device that helps propel the story…it’s a little like having voice-over to explain the characters’ thoughts….but it does take you out of the movie. The performances, uniformly good, still seem stage-bound and never quite live in the medium of film.

The Four Seasons are played by three actors familiar with the roles from their time on stage, and one familiar face who tackles perhaps the trickiest acting challenge. Vincent Piazza, well known as Lucky Luciano on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” had no experience with the musical. He plays Tommy DeVito, the driving force behind the band but also its most destructive member. John Lloyd Young (who won a Tony on Broadway) plays Valli and is joined by Erich Bergen (as chief songwriter Bob Gaudio) and Michael Lomenda. The singing, which was recorded live on set, is more than proficient, and fans of the group will be in heaven.

As the story begins, Frankie is a 16 year who dreams of singing like the family hero Frank Sinatra, whose photo adorns the living room right next to that of the Pope. He flirts with petty crime and hoodlums, and narrowly avoids jail time. Tommy recognizes the magic in his voice and music lifts them out of the gutter with their first hit “Sherry”.

The screenplay then follows familiar beats with success being tempered by personal struggles (a failing marriage, estranged relationships) and financial difficulties as Tommy gets in too deep with local gangsters who eventually come calling for their money. Christopher Walken appears as Gyp DeCarlo, a mob boss who takes a shine to young Frankie and gets the group out of some very hot water. Shuffling around the screen in pajamas and an old bath robe, Walken injects some old-school class into the action although he does seem to have wandered in from a knock-off Scorsese film. He’s as charismatic as ever, yet is never allowed to be completely kooky or menacing in the ways that we have come to expect.

Much as in his period drama “Changeling”, Eastwood gets the details right. From the costumes, to the sets, streets and accents, it all looks good. But there is a chilly air of distance between the screen and the audience. Somehow this story never soars or feels truly lived in. For a film about the triumph of song, it is strangely inert and devoid of emotion. Only the end credits sequence brought a smile to my lips and set my feet a-tapping.




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