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Baby Got Backstory

fm jerseyToo much plot can't stop the music in Clint Eastwood’s ‘Jersey Boys’

Director Clint Eastwood makes no attempt to disguise the stage origins of Jersey Boys, his film adaptation of the hit Broadway musical. Why would he? The “jukebox musical” built around the music of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons was a huge hit when it debuted in 2005, won four Tonys (including Best Musical), continues to be a hot ticket on Broadway nine years later, and has spawned dozens of popular touring productions around the world.

Eastwood is a pro; he knows better than to fool around with success. To his enormous credit, he opted against casting movie stars and instead
cast alumni from various stage productions of the show (including Tony-winner John Lloyd Young, who originated the role of Frankie Valli on Broadway) as three of the Four Seasons in his film. Not only do these guys know their characters inside out, they can all sing like the dickens (Young's Valli-worthy falsetto is particularly impressive). Eastwood then had the freedom to shoot their musical numbers live (instead of recording their vocals separately and looping them into the soundtrack), bringing an extra layer of immediacy and verve to the songs.

So the movie sounds great. And even the revue-style stage device of having the characters occasionally pause in the middle of the action (sometimes in the middle of a song) to talk to the audience works most of the time, as a way to keep the narrative going forward.

But ultimately, there proves to be more backstory than the film can comfortably handle, not only individual character biographies (as sketchy as they often are), but also in the story arc of the group as a whole—from rags to riches to its final implosive breakup.

Still, it's the nature of the biopic to rush through a lot of material, especially when the biographies are multiplied by four. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who wrote the book for the stage show, also adapt the story for the screen, and they keep things pretty lively early on. In Belleville, N.J., 1951, teenage Frankie is working in a barbershop. His buddy, Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) runs errands for the local mob boss (a terrific Christopher Walken), and when he's not knocking over jewelry stores or doing jail time, he has a little part-time band. Piazza is the only member of the onscreen quartet who wasn’t cherry-picked out of a stage production, and he delivers a breakout performance as cocky wannabe-player Tommy.

Frankie is invited to join Tommy and bass player Nicky Massi (Michael Lomenda). A friend suggests Bob Gaudio (an engaging Erich Bergen), a keyboardist and budding songwriter, who's inspired to write for Frankie's voice. They can barely scrape up the cash to cut a demo, but after they meet producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle) at the Brill Building in New York City, they soar to the top of the charts on a string of Gaudio/Crewe hits like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don't Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man.” But ultimately, the stress of the road, friction between the guys, and Tommy’s astounding debts to the mob scuttle the group.

As the narrative progresses into these less fun parts of the tale, large sections of the storytelling feel inert, and some key moments get short shrift. When we first meet Mary (Renée Marino), the future Mrs. Valli, she’s a pretty hot number, vamping Frankie in a bar, and giving him savvy advice. The next time we see her, years later, she’s an unhappy drunk, but her story is never told. Ditto their daughter, Francine, a sweet little cherub in one scene, a runaway teen in the next. It becomes a major plot point that she's a great singer, even better than her dad, but it’s news to the audience; we never hear her sing so much as a nursery rhyme.

Toward the end, Frankie tells the others the best time was when the four of them were harmonizing together on a street corner, but it's a moment that was not shown earlier. Eastwood tries to compensate with a crowd-pleasing Bollywood-style finale, which confirms that, even given the intimacy of film, Jersey Boys is still all about the music.


JERSEY BOYS **1/2 With John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda, and Christopher Walken. Written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice. Directed by Clint Eastwood. A Warner Bros. release. Rated R. 134 minutes.

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