“Jersey Boys” (2014) is a Solid Film in Its Own Right


8/10

Jersey Boys Poster

As a movie based on a broadway musical, “Jersey Boys” (2014) avoids two traps that other movie musicals fall into: casting actors who have the name recognition but not the singing capabilities and lack of scale that puts to waste the unlimited spacial possibilities of films on screen.

The title “Jersey Boys” refers to how the original four that constituted the rock band The Four Seasons–Frankie Valli, with the voice, Bob Gaudio, who wrote the hits, Tommy DeVito, the troublemaker leader, and Nick Massi, the caretaker of younger Frankie–were able to escape the rough neighborhood of Newark, New Jersey to give America unforgettable hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You”, and “Working My Way Back to You” with encouragement from mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) and support from music producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle).

Many things work well in “Jersey Boys,” but what stands out the most is that each cast who needs to sing has the voice to pull it off and no one who can’t doesn’t sing.  One would think that this is an absolute necessity in film musicals, but it’s a sad statement of this genre that “Jersey Boys” has achieved quite a noteworthy accomplishment in this area.

And so it is that John Lloyd Young, in the role of Frankie Valli which won him the Tony Award on broadway, takes top billing in the film by singing his way through the band’s (mostly) rise, and Christopher Walken shows presence through his acting while sparing us from the uninspired singing he displayed in “Hairspray” (2007).  The film’s producers also wisely decided to emphasize vocals over name recognition in casting other members of The Four Seasons–Erich Bergen as Gaudio, Vincent Piazza as DeVito and Michael Lomenda as Massi, something that can’t be said about Russell Crowe in “Les Miserable” (2012).

Mere good casting isn’t enough to make a good film musical, though.  Films based on broadway productions have a tendency to unnecessarily confine themselves to what was produced on stage.  “Jersey Boys” avoids such wasted opportunity in small ways.  Take the brief scene in which DeVito and others, with Valli as the watchman, try to rob a safe in the middle of the night by shelving it onto a trunk of a four door sedan.  The safe is too heavy so it causes a wheelie, and the car runs uncontrollably on two wheels before crashing into a showcase window.  There’s nothing particularly memorable about this scene as a film, but it’s notable in “Jersey Boys” for the mere fact that it’s not something you can see in a stage production.

In ensuring that the film wasn’t too literally faithful to the original show, it probably helped that Clint Eastwood, who has over four decades of experience working in films but little on broadway, directed the film.  I suspect that the material, a bio epic about a famous rock band, also lent itself to a natural movie adaptation.  After all, in a movie about musicians singing in studios, on TV and in tour, music forms a natural part of the narrative.  In addition, “Jersey Boys” does a solid job of working The Four Seasons’ greatest hits (of which there were many) into the background and ensuring that the film doesn’t get grounded in recording or performing scenes.  In that the movie is naturally about the music, it seems more appropriate to compare “Jersey Boys” to movies like “Walk the Line” (2005),  a solid bio epic about Jonny Cash, rather than to other musicals like the painfully forced “Mamma Mia!” (2008).

I give much credit to the film for not making it seem like a recreation of the broadway show on screen, but the tone and feel of “Jersey Boys” is decidedly that of the broadway musical.  As was in the show, the film’s narrative approach is to have each of the four tell their own version in the first person of how The Four Seasons came to be; that the movie also opens with DeVito’s memorable line from the show, “I’ll tell you what really happened,” is a nice touch.  It’s also memorable that the movie concludes just the way the broadway show did, with the entire cast dancing to “December 1963 (Oh, What A Night).”

Ultimately, “Jersey Boys” is a solid film because it found a way to adopt a very good stage production to stand on its own as a film.  “Jersey Boys” takes the best of what the broadway musical has to offer–catchy music supporting the storytelling–with the scale that a Hollywood production offers.  As “Les Miserable” and “The Producers” (2005) showed, this is a surprisingly rare coup.

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