Anyone who saw the original Broadway production of Jersey Boys, or one of its many satellite offshoots, may have a problem with Clint Eastwood's attempt to turn this unusual musical into a movie. The problem is, you can't un-see the show.
In the theatre, director Des McAnuff supercharged the story of the Four Seasons – the New York vocal group whose hits bridged the beginning of the British Invasion era – with sensational staging. In one scene, with the group performing live in concert, we saw the four members only from behind, facing the back of the stage, where spotlights and crowd cheers erupted and blasted past them out into the audience. It was a spectacular showbiz effect. Eastwood's movie contains faint echoes of McAnuff's theatrical flourishes, but that's all they are. It's a picture filled with faint echoes.
The script, by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the stage show, once again reveals long-buried information about the group: their warm relationship with Mafia loansharking kingpin Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo (played here by Christopher Walken), and the fact that two of them did time in prison. But the script also preserves the story's chronological structure, which was an awkward feature of the musical as well. It starts at the very beginning – and rather slowly – showing us guitarist Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) bringing together bassist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) and teenage singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) in a smalltime New Jersey band, getting by with gigs in bars and bowling alleys. We see Valli urging the recruitment of songwriter and keyboardist Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who has already had a hit with a group called the Royal Teens. Thus rounded out, the newly named Four Seasons soon draw the interest of a prolific New York record producer, Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), who shepherds them to international stardom.
The movie takes so long laying out this backstory that we don't hear any of the Four Seasons' famous hits until an hour in, when the boys break through with their 1962 smash, "Sherry." Two more chart-toppers follow – "Big Girls Don't Cry" and "Walk Like a Man." The group graduates to TV appearances, playing Dick Clark's American Bandstand and The Ed Sullivan Show. They tour the country tirelessly, living it up on the road. Valli's marriage falls apart. DeVito resents the way that Gaudio and Valli are taking over the group, and he's wounded when he overhears the two men striking a side partnership that will eventually lead Valli into a solo career. Then financial disaster strikes, and Gyp DeCarlo has to step in to help. The group falls apart, not reuniting until years later, for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
This is a fascinating and legitimately bittersweet story, or it should be. In the period in which the Four Seasons came together – the late 1950s and early '60s – the New York music business was a delirious hotbed of round-the-clock hit-hustling. A galaxy of sharp producers and hungry young songwriters were creating a breezy new kind of pop-rock, and New York acts like Neil Sedaka, Little Eva, the Shirelles and Dion were waiting to greet the Four Seasons when they arrived on the charts. Eastwood captures none of this legendary ferment, and virtually none of this other music. (There's only a puzzlingly sudden live rendition of the Angels' "My Boyfriend's Back.") In fact, there aren't nearly as many uninterrupted Four Seasons hits as might be expected, either. The rags-to-riches-to-rags narrative rules the movie as it did the stage show, and the story's emotional pull is mainly conveyed through glossier Valli solo hits like "My Eyes Adored You" and "Can't Take My Eyes Off You."
Eastwood, a musician himself, has a well-known affinity for jazz, as demonstrated by his films about Charlie Parker and Thelonious Monk. In entering the brasher pop world of the Four Seasons, he appears to be flying blind. He's fortunate in his casting, especially with Young, who projects a battered sweetness as a street kid who's growing up in a tough business. (Young originated the Valli role on Broadway, and he once again nails the singer's soaring, crack-the-sky falsetto.) In addition, Doyle injects some giddy comic energy as the effusively gay Bob Crewe (we miss him when he's not around). But Walken, the only established star in the film, unbalances it a bit with his old-pro line readings – he walks away with some of his scenes without breaking a sweat.
The movie's other flaws are more crucial. Having characters directly address the audience works better onstage than it does onscreen – when Nick Massi looks up from his bass during a concert scene to impart some story data, the moment is jarringly silly. And while Eastwood has never been a snappy director, his pacing here really drags. He has also chosen a drained, drab color palette for his interior scenes, some of which are strikingly over-lit. And while musical performances in movies are a species of action filmmaking, Eastwood's camera never wades into them here; there's no excitement. (It doesn't help that the cast's new recordings of the old Four Seasons hits sound slightly muddled; onstage they're crisp and punchy.)
The Four Seasons weren't a "rock band," exactly – not in the way that might be meant today. Their style derived from the fading doo-wop tradition. But they made great records, and they're an enduring emblem of the hit-factory rock era. Eastwood's movie, which runs well over two hours, would be better if it rocked a little bit itself. But it never does.