Amongst the present day plague of greatest hits musicals like Mamma Mia!, We Will Rock You, and Chas ‘n’ Dave and their Amazing Technicolor Flat Caps, Jersey Boys stands out as somewhat unique – and not just because it’s the sole one set in the Channel Islands and featuring a tap-dancing cameo from brown-jacketed Jim Bergerac.
(It’s not and it doesn’t, of course; the Jersey of the title refers to New Jersey.)
Y’see, so stratospheric are the heights of success to which Jersey Boys has soared, its fame has now in all probability surpassed that of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, the very act on whose songs and story the show is based. Suck on that, chaps.
Like its all-conquering theatrical forebear, the big screen incarnation of Jersey Boys sits somewhere between the so-called ‘jukebox musical’ (where a new, unrelated story is used to stitch the various numbers together) and the semi-straight rock biopic, such as Taylor Hackford’s Ray and Oliver Stone’s The Doors.
However, while neither of those movies were able to shed the sensation they were offering a not-quite-right simulacrum of individuals whose likenesses were already seared onto your mental canvas, in contrast the Four Seasons represent something of a blank slate.
Even Valli, the most famous of the quartet, tends to sit in the memory as the middle-aged, fuzzy-haired crooner who rode the nostalgia wave back to the top of the charts in the mid-70s with Oh, What a Night and the theme tune to Grease. That leaves his younger self – which is the one primarily represented here – relatively open to the interpretation of the actor playing him (John Lloyd Young, who originated the role on stage, earning a Tony for his trouble).
This lack of preconceptions is to the film’s advantage – and if the principal quartet of actors are short on big screen experience (of the four, only Vincent Piazza who plays bad boy Tommy DeVito has significant credits to his name, most notably as Lucky Luciano in HBO’s Boardwalk Empire) then the arse occupying the director’s chair has been around the Tinseltown block more times than most.
That’s because said posterior is attached to the macho personage of Clint Eastwood, now aged 84 and making his 33rd movie as director (his 34th, American Sniper, is already in the can). What’s more, Clint isn’t just director-producer on the Jersey Boys film, he also played Jesus to its Lazarus, reviving it at Warner Bros. after a proposed Jon Favreau-helmed version was put into turnaround.
The Favreau version was able to boast a script by Skyfall and Gladiator screenwriter John Logan which supposedly diverged significantly from the stage show. However, when Eastwood signed up, he jettisoned the Logan draft and returned instead to the original book, as penned by Rick Elice and Woody Allen’s old writing partner, Marshall Brickman.
This means the film deploys the device of direct-to-audience narration from each of the central foursome, starting with DeVito, then hit-writing wunderkind Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), dim bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and Valli himself. It’s a self-consciously theatrical technique, albeit one seemingly influenced in turn by the voiceover-soaked Italian-American opuses of Martin Scorsese (who too was once rumoured as a possible Jersey Boys director).
Eastwood offers a rose-tinted view of Tommy and Frankie’s early lives in Belleville which doesn’t just decline to delve beyond the surface stereotypes, it wallows in them like a pig in slop. As the duo flirt with petty crime, getting clips round the ear from various authority figures along the way, you’ll feel like you’re watching a slightly grittier version of Happy Days, or a previously unseen Simpsons prequel series focusing on the early years of lovable mobster Fat Tony.
Not that Jersey Boys needs another lovable mobster; it’s already got Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), transformed from real-life loan shark pardoned in shady circumstances by Nixon to avuncular good egg. If Bob Fosse had been similarly glib with history then Cabaret would’ve wound up like Springtime for Hitler.
A great deal of interest in the Four Seasons’ story stems from how they passed through the mid-60s transmogrification of rock ‘n’ roll from throwaway novelty for fickle teens to cultural monolith worthy of consideration by folks of all ages. This Rubicon crystallises the dramatic dynamic at the heart of Jersey Boys: Tommy not being built for life on this gilded new frontier while Bob very much is, with Frankie caught between the two, torn between past loyalty and a gateway to Olympian glamour (well, playing ski resorts to barely sentient middle-aged swingers, but you get the idea).
However, while most rise-to-fame stories (aside from purely triumphal ego-wanks) are tales of people who, to paraphrase Little Richard, got what they wanted but lost what they had, it’s not exactly clear what the Four Seasons had to begin with, seeing as they never liked each other that much and were all using the group as a fairly naked stepping stone to showbiz success.
Within this narrative, Eastwood serves up some moments to make you cringe just as much as his infamous RNC rant at the vacant chair did. As anyone who caught that PR disaster, or indeed his last movie as director, J. Edgar, can attest, the old boy sometimes struggles to discern when something carries genuine emotional clout and when it’s as ridiculous as an armadillo firing ping pong balls out of its butt passage.
So rather than showing the restraint and honesty that might have made a scene such as Frankie putting his young daughter Francine to bed genuinely touching, the veteran director instead lets the moment sink in a quagmire of treacle. At least another of J. Edgar’s cardinal sins, the comical old-age make-up, is largely absent; it does come out late on in proceedings, but mercifully briefly.
Jersey Boys is released in the UK on 20 June