I don't quite know how it happened, but in the early 1960s there was some sort of mass psychosis in which the shrill, squealing squeak of Frankie Valli's falsetto was considered a pleasurable thing. What sounds to you or I or any rational individual like a peregrine falcon creaking out its death-kaw became, when produced and arranged by Brill Building geniuses like Bob Gaudio and Bob Crewe, a string of number one hits. Hey, weirder things have happened.
The story of Valli's ascent – and we're using the term story very loosely here – was eventually turned into a sanctioned jukebox musical that has brought appeasement to dazed New York tourists for years. You come to town, you look at the tall buildings, you gotta go see some kind of show: you go see “Jersey Boys.”
While the Broadway production may very well have plenty of pop and polish (I've never gone; I leave my visiting cousins at the door) Clint Eastwood's soporific film version is a defiantly dull retelling of the band's history. Do you really want to know what went on behind the closed doors of . . .their accountant's office??! Well, look no further 'cause “Jersey Boys” is going to bust it wide open for you.
“Jersey Boys,” as adapted from the play by its book authors Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, doubles down on its Italian-American rags-to-riches angle. It's hardly original (three minutes in and there's a “that guy” from “The Sopranos”) but when Mama is yellin' about her baby not wanting to mangia his meatballs, well, it's hard not to crack a familiar smile. Young Frankie (John Lloyd Young) is a good kid and a tender singer, it's just that he's mixed up with that no good hoodlum Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza.)
DeVito, of course, isn't just a two-bit hustler of stolen liquor with connections to the mob (Christopher Walken in his most “doing a Christopher Walken role” ever) he's the visionary of what will become Valli's group, The Four Seasons.
With Tommy on guitar (and as manager) plus comic relief Nick (Michael Lomenda) on bass and, as secret weapon, the not-very-ethnic Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) as principal songwriter and pianist, the group soon finds their groove with flamboyant producer Bob Crewe.
I cannot tell a lie, watching the neighborhood kids shelve their street tough ways for magic in the studio makes for some intriguing scenes. It's always great to see the creative process on screen, even if it's glamorized beyond all believability. The shock comes when this slow movie reaches what feels like a good point to end – and you realize you are only about 45 minutes in. Good God, this is a slog.
The second half is all about the group's money woes. Seriously, like I don't have my own problems. Oh, there's a scene early on where Frankie meets a woman (a very funny Renee Marino, as brassy as they come) so there's an attempt to shoehorn in a lovestory. They quickly marry, but she disappears, only to come back when the story needs a cliché castrating bitch. Right before the movie ends we're supposed to care about one of their kids who is having problems. We're told that she's an angel. Sure, we'll take your word for it. Some female character in this movie has to be good – every other one is merely a swooning trophy that gets about half-a-line before being shooed away by men who have some serious talking to do.
Eastwood, who once upon a time was a flavorful director, is working in movie-of-the-week mode here. Cheesy, direct, bland. Anyone expecting big musical numbers will be disappointed. With the exception of a closing credits bit, all the singing is done static, on a stage or in the studio. Christopher Walken is having a good time in his expanded cameo – he wears a silk robe and speaks Italian – but there's nothing too deep for him to tap into here. There are many biopics about musicians that use the Wikipedia beats to extract some sort of universal meaning. “Walk the Line” does this. “Control” does this. Hell, “Amadeus” does this better than any of them. “Jersey Boys” is instead strangely focused on hewing strictly to reportage on the ins and outs of Franki Valli's not-very-interesting life.