The good news for director Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” is that the music works, elevating it from a tedious rehashing of familiar elements to an occasionally inspired movie that nearly overcomes its shortcomings. To be sure, the rise of Frankie Valli and the rest of his band, the Four Seasons, is an amazing success story. Having said that, “Jersey Boys” points out that it’s a story that might be better suited for A&E than the big screen, leaving us with too much fluff to really take seriously and drama that often feels tossed in for effect. While Eastwood has made plenty of good films and even one or two great ones, “Jersey Boys” is a tame experience that is as difficult to truly engage with as it is forgettable.
Even for generations that didn’t grow up with Frankie Valli, many of his classic songs are so famous that it’s impossible to deny their cultural importance. Instead of going out and picking a major screen star, Eastwood tapped John Lloyd Young to play the lead, which is a natural choice considering Young already played Valli for the Broadway musical. Though Young doesn’t have a great deal of interesting dialog to work with, his talent is impossible to deny once he breaks into song. So powerful is Valli’s voice that it only takes a couple of notes for him to turn heads in nightclubs, and it’s not hard to imagine that anyone who saw Valli before he was a star knew they were watching something special.
From there, the rest of the pieces start to fall into place. Realizing that Valli could be a superstar, Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) end up joining forces to form a quartet that looks like they’re on the rise in the early 1960s. With a powerful lead singer and some talent backing him up, the Four Seasons seem from early on to be a band destined to be legendary.
But that’s when the laws of musical biopics come into play. Though everything seems like it’s headed in the right direction for the Four Seasons, an unchallenged success story simply wouldn’t make for much of a movie. Beneath the glitz and Valli’s mellifluous voice, the Four Seasons also have to deal with the realities of their rough upbringings, which ultimately test their commitment to both music and to each other. Growing up in tough neighborhoods in New Jersey, the Four Seasons bring plenty of baggage with them to the stage, setting them up for monumental failure if they allow their demons to tear them apart.
If this all sounds a little obvious for a movie plot, it’s mainly because it is. Following in the tradition of “Ray” and “Walk the Line,” among others, “Jersey Boys” works to find rock bottom for our band of upstarts, sidling from one dramatic turn to the next almost as if it’s on autopilot. That Valli and the Four Seasons actually did deal with dramatic turns during their rise in the 60s also doesn’t make the movie play any better, as we end up with the type of movie formula that could be used – and already has – for countless other iconic musicians. The music numbers definitely remain snazzy throughout, but when the Four Seasons aren’t performing, the rest of the story is brushed with a somber tone that frequently loses the momentum without providing a great deal of depth for the characters.
Yet even though much of the non-musical segments of the film feel like filler, “Jersey Boys” is still a difficult movie to hate. Complete with well-placed side roles from Christopher Walken and Steve Schirripa of “The Sopranos” fame, “Jersey Boys” does sporadically fall into place and capture the fanfare surrounding one of the most successful bands of the 60s. After making plenty of westerns and tackling war from different angles as well, Eastwood succeeds in showing that he can bring a stage musical to life on the big screen, even if the effort is wasted by a story that too often feels tired and unoriginal.
Perhaps more than any other genre, musical biopics tend to play it extremely safe, and “Jersey Boys” ends up being merely the latest example. While “Walk the Line” overcame genre limitations by making Johnny Cash as interesting off-stage as he was on it, “Jersey Boys” doesn’t find a way to do the same. “Jersey Boys” may get you humming some of the tunes, but without a compelling story to fill in the rest of the film, ultimately we have a hollow experience that doesn’t live up to the inspiration.