Friday, June 20, 2014

Jersey Boys: Ain't that a shame

Jersey Boys (2014) • View trailer 
3.5 stars. Rated R, for profanity

By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 6.20.14

The good news:

Considering this play’s origins as a minimalist jukebox musical, director Clint Eastwood and scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice have “opened it up” impressively for the big screen.

At the last possible second, the members of The Four Seasons — from left, Tommy
(Vincent Piazza), Bob (Erich Bergen), Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and Nick (Michael
Lomenda) — attempt to inspire their record producer by singing a new song, over the
phone, prior to a studio session that could make or break their careers.
It can’t hurt, of course, that Brickman and Elice were intimately acquainted with the material, having written the musical book for the 2005 Broadway hit that went home with four Tony Awards, including Best Musical.

The story charts the unlikely rise, success and lamentable self-destruction of the 1960s pop/rock group, The Four Seasons, perhaps better known these days as the combo fronted by Frankie Valli. Eastwood’s approach may be viewed with surprise by fans of the stage production; this cinematic adaptation of Jersey Boys is less a musical per se, and more a drama about musicians.

With the exception of a few numbers performed mostly intact for climactic emphasis, we’re granted little more than a flavor of the combo’s many hits: just enough to remind older viewers how many chart-toppers the group produced, while perhaps impressing younger viewers who don’t realize how far back some of these tunes actually go.

Additionally, Brickman and Elice have re-structured the narrative, essentially abandoning the more obvious elements of the “seasonal” presentation — spring, summer, fall and finally winter, each segment narrated by a different member of the combo — that mirrored the group’s genesis and eventual break-up. Little of that gimmick remains, aside from a stray reference to Vivaldi.

By the same token, although these individuals still break the fourth wall to tell this story by addressing us directly, their narrative input is intermixed here, rather than divided by person, according to season.

And, quite intriguingly, Valli — who wrapped up the story during the stage play’s winter segment — gets no narration here. We therefore never get a sense of his inner thoughts or motivations, as is the case with his three comrades; to a degree, then, our impression of Valli is shaped mostly by how others see him.

That’s an intriguing artistic choice, and it places a heavier burden on John Lloyd Young, who carries the bulk of the story’s emotional weight as Valli: a kid who comes into this world as Frankie Castelluccio, and seems destined to become just another mob-affiliated New Jersey punk.

Young’s comfort with the role is no surprise, since he won one of those other Tony Awards, for lead performance in the Broadway production. He delivers plenty of dramatic heft here, maturing persuasively from an uncertain, easily manipulated teenager into a savvy young man who loses the idealism of youth but remains devoted to the concepts of family and loyalty.

Particularly loyalty, to an astonishing degree. And that’s perhaps one of the most amazing elements of a saga that certainly isn’t short on luck, perseverance and serendipity.

Proving, once again, that even the most unlikely friends and colleagues can be unexpectedly steadfast and true. Or, alternatively, toxic beyond belief.

The saga begins in the 1950s, with bad boy Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza, somewhat channeling his role as Lucky Luciano, on TV’s Boardwalk Empire) promising to tell us the “straight story” about how an unlikely group of young New Jersey goombahs somehow turned into a hit band. Tommy already divides his time between music — playing and singing in a series of combos — and serving as a smug young lieutenant to mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken).

Tommy knows Frankie from the neighborhood; asking the younger kid to join the band proves inspirational, since his falsetto tenor is so immediately unique. Even DeCarlo is moved, particularly by Frankie’s rendition of “My Mother’s Eyes,” which brings the gangster to tears (a fleeting but quite powerful moment for Walken).

The group is a trio at this point, along with good-natured Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda, who played this role in a national touring company). Nick seems to be a go-along guy, content to embrace whatever the others decide; Lomenda’s amiable performance reminds me strongly of Adam Driver’s work in Inside Llewyn Davis, as that tale’s similarly deep-voiced novelty singer.

Up to this point, forward progress — club dates and so forth — come as a result of Tommy’s hustling, which he naturally assumes makes him the combo’s unofficial “leader.” But Frankie, with stronger artistic sensibilities, soon becomes brave enough to voice and even argue for his preferences: early signs of the personality clash that, over time, will lead to greater trouble with Tommy.

That said, both agree that their group needs an additional something or somebody; that void is filled with the arrival of singer/songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen, also a touring company veteran), who is introduced to the band by fellow “Jersey kid” Joe Pesci (Joseph Russo, in a captivating approximation of a young version of, yes, that Joe Pesci).

Tommy takes an immediate dislike to Bob, who isn’t from any Jersey neighborhood, and also possesses too much well-educated assurance and business smarts to be bamboozled by DeVito’s superficial, street-bred swagger. Frankie couldn’t care less about that; he’s more intrigued by Bob’s having already penned “Short Shorts,” a pop tune that became a No. 3 hit in 1958 ... when Gaudio was only 16 (having written the song a year earlier).

After taking their group name from a local bowling alley, of all things, the quartet remains on the slow road to nowhere until hooking up with innovative record producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), whom this saga compares to George Martin’s similarly behind-the-scenes work that shaped The Beatles during their early years.

I should mention, at this point, that Gaudio was the mover and shaker behind the initial creation of Jersey Boys, and that Crewe — credited with the Broadway show’s lyrics — produced and/or co-wrote (with Gaudio) many of The Four Seasons’ biggest hits. We therefore shouldn’t be surprised that Gaudio and Crewe come off so well in this narrative: the former as a talented songwriting machine who apparently plucks hit tunes out of thin air, the latter as a flamboyant Svengali who knows just how to “sweeten” a tune to maximize radio play.

Gaudio never puts a foot wrong; he’s always available to pour oil on increasingly troubled waters, and to give Frankie a much-needed emotional boost when necessary. We get the impression, in fact, that neither Valli nor The Four Seasons would have existed without Gaudio’s input ... which likely might be true, but, as far as this film is concerned, skews the character balance a bit.

Which is unfortunate, because Frankie remains the focus throughout. He’s the only character whose personal life we glimpse to any degree: his marriage to the tempestuous Mary Delgado (Renée Marino, reprising her Broadway role); his lengthy affair with reporter Lorraine Agostino (Erica Piccininni, also from the Broadway production); and his increasingly troubled relationship with youngest daughter Francine (initially Elizabeth Hunter, later Freya Tingley).

We never get even a hint of Tommy or Nick’s home lives, and little more than a glimpse of Bob’s. That’s irritating, and folks who pay attention to details also are likely to raise their eyebrows over this narrative’s conflation of two key events in Valli’s life: a crisis involving Francine, followed almost immediately by Frankie’s unlikely solo smash hit in 1967, at a time when that sort of song should have been the last thing to achieve airplay on stations fueled by increasingly harder rock ’n’ roll.

In real life, those two events were 13 years removed. Even acknowledging artistic license, that’s a clumsy discrepancy to swallow.

As is the eyeblink, eleventh-hour appearance of Francine’s two older sisters (?). Really? Frankie and Mary had three daughters? Um ... when and how? (And this seems unsupported by real-world truth, as well...)

I can’t fault the respective actors; Young, DeVito, Lomenda and Bergen are personable and talented performers, and they nail their roles. Walken is a quiet hoot as the obviously dangerous DeCarlo, who nonetheless has a soft spot for Frankie and his partners; Walken also gets most of this film’s funniest (if darkest) one-liners.

The narrative’s Rashomon-esque structure is intriguing, as we occasionally skip back and forth in time, seeing the same events — and new ones — from the differing perspective of the character giving his particular take. The group’s looming dissolution approaches with the dread inevitability of a slow-motion train wreck, and the only thing more breathtaking than Tommy’s various transgressions — watching DeVito crumble, during his day of reckoning, is heartbreaking — are the steps Frankie takes to address them.

It’s all great dramatic material, and yet the interpersonal conflict often doesn’t resonate as it should. Perhaps that’s because the grim reality of the Jersey upbringing, and how it affects (and infects) the group, takes a back seat to the quartet’s buoyant, feel-good pop hits. To be sure, this juxtaposition deliberately fueled the original stage production, but the blend doesn’t feel quite right here.

That said, there’s no denying the intoxicating power of the songs themselves, even those heard only in fragments. We can’t help smiling at the early No. 1 singles — “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” — and it’s even harder to resist a cheer when Valli croons the opening lines of that aforementioned, unexpected 1967 solo hit. In between, we get other chart-toppers such as “Rag Doll,” “Dawn” and “Who Loves You,” and the closing credits unfold over a raucous, cheer-inducing production number straight out of a Bollywood musical. You’ll be hard-pressed not to dance in the aisle.

But at 134 minutes, this take on Jersey Boys feels too long, its middle act definitely sluggish. That’s ironic, considering the degree to which we desire additional “down time” with several of these characters. At the end of the day, we’re left with the obvious conclusion: stage and film are strikingly different mediums, and the stylistic decisions that work on the former don’t necessarily translate to the latter.

As noted at the top of this review, Eastwood & Co. worked hard, and this film has much to offer. Even so, it’s just not ... quite ... satisfying.

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