Except for The Beatles, there was no bigger a pop group during the 1960’s than The Four Seasons. Frankie Valli’s power falsetto powered the band to three #1 songs in a row, and 25 hits all told between 1962 and 1968. Even if you never owned a Four Seasons record, you knew their music. Songs like “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Walk Like A Man” were inescapable, so much so that even 50 years later, it’s hard to find anyone who doesn’t recognize their distinctive sound.
So it came as no surprise that Broadway in 2005 would eventually pounce on the Four Seasons catalog for one of its jukebox musicals, a la Mamma Mia and Rock of Ages. But the creators of the show “Jersey Boys” had ambitions beyond the jukebox format. They devised a much-heralded four-headed narrative structure – each of the four band members gets to tell his own version of their story. But the real key to the show was its uncanny ability to recreate that seemingly inimitable Four Seasons’ sound live on stage every performance. For much of the show, it felt as if the audience had been transported back in time to an actual Frankie Valli concert, circa 1960 something.
The Broadway show got rave reviews, won four Tony Awards including Best Musical, and is still running strong on the Great White Way eight years later.
And now comes the Clint Eastwood-directed movie version of Jersey Boys. In a nutshell, it’s both better and worse than the Broadway show. Let’s start with the good news.
Despite the stage show’s ambitious narrative structure, I found the four different narrators an unnecessary distraction. Rather than providing depth to an otherwise shallow story, it instead force-fed us four shallow stories. “Jersey Boys” the musical was too scatter-shot in its approach to have much dramatic impact.
This approach works much better in the movie version. Perhaps because movies so often play with narrative disruption, the changing point-of-view narrations seem far less jarring and artificial than on stage. And by significantly trimming the number of musical numbers, the movie has more time to dramatize the band members’ back-stage lives. Eastwood, for instance, seems more interested in their Jersey backgrounds – their juvenile delinquencies, their Mob connections – than the stage show ever does.
But where Eastwood fails to deliver is in the musical numbers, which are the raison d’etre of the Broadway show. To his credit, Eastwood does cast the same, Tony-award winning actor who played Frankie Valli on stage (John Lloyd Young) and he does, more or less, recreate a striking approximation of the real Four Seasons singing sound.
But his filming of the musical performances is so flat and perfunctory that they’re robbed of their joy and dynamism. Instead of jaw-dropping as they are in the show, these song-recreations come off as slack-jawed. The cast sounds fine but the visuals are so staid they add nothing, and in fact, often seem to detract from the amazing voices.
“Jersey Boys” the movie improves on the weakest aspect of the stage show, the dramatic story-telling, but flattens the show’s strongest suit, the spot-on mimicry of the Four Seasons’ concert performances. To some, that may be a fair trade-off. But to fans of the original “Jersey Boys” and The Four Seasons, it’s missing the point. It should always be about the music.