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Jersey Boys

JERSEY BOYS

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Mike Doyle, Christopher Walken, Renée Marino, Freya Tingley, Joey Russo, Donnie Kehr, Erica Piccininni

MPAA Rating: R (for language throughout)

Running Time: 2:14

Release Date: 6/20/14


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Review by Mark Dujsik | June 19, 2014

At least there's the music. Jersey Boys does very little well, but it would be incredibly difficult to ruin the experience of these songs—catchy-to-the-point-of-infectious little ditties in four-four time, centered on the idea that there is little that needs to be added to the purity of human voices in harmony. It would be tough to wreck that experience, but Jersey Boys inadvertently tries even this in its relating of the story of the band the Four Seasons. It's one thing for characters to constantly break the fourth wall to tell us the important information the movie doesn't bother to show us, but it's at least a minor bit of musical sacrilege for a character to interrupt "Dawn (Go Away)" in mid-performance to further detail exposition that already has been pretty firmly established.

One gets the sense that the movie, based on the stage musical of the same name written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (both of whom wrote the screenplay), likes the music of the Four Seasons but doesn't entirely respect it. That's why we get a collection of the group's greatest hits interspersed between the story of its rise and fall—one that is as typical as any such tale could be, featuring such ordinary revelations as interpersonal conflict between band members, poor financial handling, and personal tragedy. The only thing that makes the band's history stand out is their place as the mob's favorite pop group, with the lead singer bringing a crime boss (played by Christopher Walken) to tears and a loan shark stating the only reason he hasn't taken payment from the guitarist's life or limbs is that he's a fan of the music.

What's missing is a connection to songs. They exist here without any thematic relationship to the material. Further, the movie treats them as pre-packaged artifacts. There is one scene—the movie's best—that sits back and observes as an audition for a new songwriter turns into a spontaneous jam session. In succession, each member of the original trio adds their piece of the harmony and their instrumental accompaniment, and by the end, the trio is a quartet.

The scene stands out from the rest of the movie because it treats and gets into the idea of music as a creative process. There's a sense of joy in watching these musicians, who are at odds with each other to varying degrees, throw aside their squabbles for a few minutes to become lost in the melody.

The rest of the movie reduces the process to moments of spontaneous inspiration. In one scene, the band watches Kirk Douglas slap Jan Sterling in Ace in the Hole, leading one member to state that she'll probably cry, and of course, the songwriter's response immediately turns into "Big Girls Don't Cry." That is about as detailed as the screenplay gets in tracing the origins of these songs. The rest seem to come as from the ether. Someone here or there says the band needs a hit, and the movie dutifully cuts to them performing one, such as "Sherry" or "Walk Like a Man."

The story itself starts in 1951 and covers about 16 years of the band's professional triumphs and slow-but-steady decay. Those incidents are narrated at various points throughout the narrative by each member of the band. There's the hotheaded Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who hopes to escape the drudgery of suburban life. There's Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), the bassist who bottles up his outrage over Tommy's behavior. There's Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), the levelheaded songwriter who writes the hits the group needs. Finally, there's Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), the singer with an impressive range marked by an impeccable falsetto. It turns out that the story is ultimately Frankie's, although that comes as a surprise, given that the other three get the bulk of the narration.

It's an impatient narrative that fills in the gaps between songs with the usual quarrels of the professional and, as Frankie becomes the central figure, domestic variety. Even if we don't know the story of the Four Seasons, we know this story, and it doesn't help that the screenplay doesn't give any of the behind-the-scenes drama time to breathe. Characters, like Frankie's wife (Renée Marino) and daughter, disappear for long stretches, only to return when the screenplay needs them to fill in for the absence of conflict when the band inevitably crumbles.

Director Clint Eastwood gives this stilted material an equally wooden presentation, with a camera that submissively captures what should be lively performances head-on. Jersey Boys is pretty much a drag. Well, at least there is the music.

Copyright © 2014 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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