In the Tony Award-winning musical Jersey Boys — and in director Clint Eastwood’s new movie version of the still-running 2005 Broadway smash — a successful teen songwriter named Bob Gaudio has a “eureka” moment the first time he hears the soaring, distinctive voice of Francis Stephen Castelluccio. Or, as that singer has been known for the better part of his life, Frankie Valli.
Listening to Valli’s range, emotion and vocal pyrotechnics, Gaudio knew he had found his instrument, the ideal interpreter of whatever hit he could dream up.
And once he and Valli partnered with Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi to become The Four Seasons, there were so many hits: Sherry, Big Girls Don’t Cry, Rag Doll, Walk Like a Man, Bye Bye Baby, Working My Way Back to You, Beggin’, Who Loves You. There were also Valli solo hits, like Can’t Take My Eyes Off You and My Eyes Adored You.
If you happened to be young in the 1960s and ’70s, if you had a particular radio-friendly Top 40 taste in music, Valli and the Four Seasons probably supplied the soundtrack to plenty of your coming-of-age adventures.
That built-in nostalgia is part of the reason for the success of Jersey Boys onstage and for its appeal as a movie. But what makes Jersey Boys work for a broader audience is its GoodFellas-meets-Behind the Music content, the story of guys who rose from nothing to the top of the charts; its artful blend of fact and interpretive truth-stretching, plus its Rashomon device of letting each member of the group tell part of the story from his point of view. And it’s all woven together by those familiar, catchy songs.
Oscar winner Eastwood has infused many of his films with jazz, his first musical love, so his choice of a project with pop-rock and Broadway roots may have seemed like a mismatch. But he made smart choices, having Valli and Gaudio around as executive producers, tapping Marshall Brickman (who co-wrote Woody Allen’s Annie Hall and Manhattan) and Rick Elice to turn their musical book into a screenplay, and casting mainly actor-singers who had done stage musical as the movie’s Four Seasons.
Just as Valli was the star of the Four Seasons, Tony winner John Lloyd Young is the star of Jersey Boys. The diminutive actor with the killer falsetto is almost 10 years older than when he originated the role of Valli on Broadway, so the early scenes featuring a 38-year-old Young as the 16-year-old Valli are a stretch. But Brickman and Elice’s deeper, darker screenplay gives the more mature actor plenty to work with in conveying the devastating personal cost of his drive for success.
Vincent Piazza (Lucky Luciano on Boardwalk Empire), the only one of these Jersey Boys not to have done the stage musical, is domineering and difficult as lead guitarist DeVito, the connected guy who fancied himself the band’s leader and proceeded to get the Seasons in trouble with the mob and the IRS.
Michael Lomenda is funny and frustrated as bass player Massi, losing it masterfully when he details the nightmare of rooming with DeVito on the road. Erich Bergen thoroughly inhabits Gaudio, who is altogether different from the other three — more preppy with less of the smalltown Jersey streets, focused as an artist-businessman, initially more innocent (though not, amusingly, for long).
Oscar winner Christopher Walken is light on menace and long on warmth as the neighborhood’s gentlemanly mob guy (and major Frankie Valli fan) Gyp DeCarlo. Joseph Russo is a goofy Joe Pesci (yes, that Joe Pesci), the guy who knew Gaudio and Valli when they were both scrambling to make it. As producer-lyricist Bob Crewe, Mike Doyle plays the gay hitmaker with a wry smile, a bit of edge and a touch of camp. Renée Marino, who played Valli’s first wife Mary on tour and on Broadway, evolves from confident seductress to a woman whose go-to emotion is fury.
Cinematographer Tom Stern and production designer James J. Murakami give the period New Jersey (actually a disguised Los Angeles) a mostly muted color palette, so that when costume designer Deborah Hopper dresses Valli and the Seasons in red jackets, they really pop. Some details, on the other hand, are fodder for Facebook blooper posts: When the group gets arrested for skipping out on a hotel bill, they get hauled off to the slammer just after an Ohio State Fair appearance in “Cleveland.” Actually, the Ohio State Fair is held in Columbus (which happens to be my hometown).
Eastwood, who makes a period cameo in Jersey Boys via an image from his old Rawhide series on a TV screen, has made a movie that expands on the storytelling that helped set Broadway’s Jersey Boys apart from the typical “jukebox” musical. If the film audience doesn’t get to experience the thrill of watching the faux Valli and the Seasons sing entire numbers live, well, there’s always the next Jersey Boys tour.
Cast: John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, Mike Doyle, Renée Marino, Joseph Russo, Erica Piccininni.
Director: Clint Eastwood.
Screenwriter: Marshall Brickman, Rick Elice.
A Warner Brothers release. Running time: 134 minutes. Content: vulgar language, sexual situations, violence. Opens June 20 at area theaters.