Review: Enduring pop classics lift 'Jersey Boys'

Posted at 07/20/14 11:58 AM

"Jersey Boys" brings us all back to the early 1960s. A young Francis Castelluccio, a hairdresser's apprentice with a unique high falsetto singing voice, takes on the name Frankie Valli. Together with a couple of petty criminals named Tommy DeVito and Nick Massi, they would sing in small gigs around town, going nowhere, except in jail when caught.

When they meet a talented singer-songwriter named Bob Gaudio, they called themselves the Four Seasons and started a hot streak of Number 1 hits on the radio. However, their connections to the mob and loan sharks lead to strains within the group and their families.

I have not seen the successful stage musical version yet. It was hard to imagine that this film gets its origins from a successful original Broadway musical. Director Clint Eastwood takes things a little too seriously. The storytelling actually lacked substantial excitement and humor, until the parts when they actually sing those unforgettable Number 1 hit songs such as "Sherry" (Aug. 1962), "Big Girls Don't Cry" (Oct. 1962) and "Walk Like a Man" (Jan. 1963). It is evident that it was the timeless music of the Four Seasons that keep this rather heavy-handed biopic afloat.

There was a significant bit of anachronism when they played "My Eyes Adored You" (a solo No. 1 hit for Valli in 1975) before we see Valli perform his first solo hit, "Can't Take My Eyes Off You" (No. 2 in 1967). It was also odd to hear that the producers at that time in the psychedelic late 1960s considered the very pop and catchy "Can't" (complete with a big band horn section) to be an "experimental" song that was unlikely to be a hit.

The only actor I recognized was Christopher Walken, who seemed to have enjoyed his role as a mob boss with a heart of gold. The four lead actors were unknown to me. They were supposed to have sung these songs themselves, which was very impressive.

The actor who played Frankie Valli is John Lloyd Young, who actually won a Tony for this same role in Broadway. His singing voice is unmistakably similar in quality to Valli's, and his singing scenes were glorious. However, he did look a bit old to play a 16-year old at the start, and looked too self-conscious onscreen during the dramatic scenes.

Doing better were the other three guys in the group. I liked the way Eastwood made them relate the story to the audience while they were still in the scene, breaking the fourth wall. Vincent Piazza did not originate from the stage version, but he really radiated a sense of danger as the rouge Tommy. Michael Lomenda had his musical and serio-comic moments as the deep-voiced Nick. However, the most potent screen charisma was from Erich Bergen as the wholesome Bob.

I was surprised that the local Film Classification Board rated this film as PG when there are a lot of profanity, suggestions of drug abuse and scenes of sexual nature. I brought my kids in to watch, and there were naughty scenes that were really awkward, notably that of Bob's "Christmas gift." I belatedly found out that the US had rated this film with an R.

However, it is the music that will remain to be the most memorable aspect of "Jersey Boys". Their final performance of "Who Loves You" (#3 in 1975) at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony in 1990 was electric (despite the iffy aging make-up). I wanted to stand up and cheer.

I positively loved the scene at the end credits set to the tune of "December 1963 (Oh What a Night)" (No. 11 in 1976), which looked like an actual stage curtain call. These vibrant moments certainly buoyed up the whole film and left a good lasting impression and last song syndrome, not only for me and my wife, but even for my kids. 7/10

This review was originally published in the author's blog, "Fred Said."