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'Jersey Boys' mostly works its way to the big screen with success

The titular Jersey Boys.
The titular Jersey Boys.
© Warner Bros.

Jersey Boys


"Jersey Boys" appears to be one of the most honest biopics ever made. The movie, based on a stage musical, tells the story of The Four Seasons. It paints none of the members of the band in a real pretty light. Instead, all the members are portrayed as human beings in that while they have their talents and charms, they also have their flaws. Everyone in the band has a big ego and so no one in the band is really ever happy with their place in the group nor with their place in life as a whole. The members of the band are always searching for something more out of life and never seem to be comfortable in any place they have gotten to, no matter how hard they worked to get there.

Nick Massi, the bass player of the band, at first comes across as the most sympathetic, but maybe that's because his place in this story is what seems to be the place that every bass player finds themselves in within the story of their band: nowhere. We don't learn a whole lot about Nick Massi aside from the fact that he is uncomfortable with his place in the band. He knows that he is the lowest rung on the ladder. He even compares himself to Ringo Starr, the member of The Beatles with the reputation of being the least important to the group. The only thing we really learn about his life outside of the band is in one small bit of dialogue towards the end of the movie. This tiny bit of info that we get about Nick Massi is actually rather huge and reveals that he has made mistakes on par with anyone else in the band. The movie's lack of focus on his character might be disappointing in terms of getting to know all the members of the band, but it actually helps in making the audience understand Nick's frustration with never being in the spotlight.

Bob Gaudio, the writer of most of the band's songs, is probably the band member we know the least about in his life outside of the band and also the one who seems to come across as the least flawed. Maybe that's because we don't really seem to know anything about his life outside of the band. We do get to see a lot his personality though. We know he has a higher code of morality than the other members of the band, but we don't know really where he came from or what his life was like before the band. He's not from the same streets of New Jersey that the rest of the band grew up in, but I couldn't tell you where he came from. All we see is that he had a knack for creating hit songs and that he, like everyone else in the band, had a big ego. Mostly, his ego actually worked for him as it was backed up by lots of hit songs for the band.

Tommy DeVito, the lead guitar player of the band, is the character the movie begins with and is the one who gets a lot of focus in the story. Everyone in the band has issues with ego, but none of them have it quite as bad as Tommy DeVito. The problem with Tommy's ego is that it never seems to have any justification. He thinks he is this great, important, and very talented person, but his actions never seem to really show it. Certainly, not many people believe in Tommy the way he believes in himself. He is also a man who doesn't care if he has to break the law to get what he wants. Going to prison doesn't even seem to phase him. He always at least tries to put on the appearance that everything will be okay, even when locked behind bars.

Of course, a movie about The Four Seasons, who sometimes went by the name Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, would not be complete without a lot of time spent on Frankie Valli himself. Frankie is portrayed here as a man with talent, but no real sense of how to make good use of it. He doesn't seem to have a lot of ambition or confidence in himself in his younger years. It is the rest of the band members that really push him along into the spotlight. Once he is there, he deals with the problems that all heavily-touring band members face. He struggles to find that right balance between family and work as well as facing the various temptations that arise from being a popular person in places far from home.

Again, what I like about this movie is that it doesn't portray any of the band members as perfect people. This movie doesn't glorify the members of The Four Seasons. It certainly celebrates their music and the talent of each band member, but it doesn't shy away from any of their flaws. Tommy DeVito is the easiest one to find flaw with, but even Frankie Valli makes many mistakes in his life. Some mistakes cost him in a very big way. What this movie shows clearly is that fame, money, and even talent can't make a person escape the realities of life. No human is perfect and no life is going to be without its hard times.

"Jersey Boys" tries to examine each member of The Four Seasons closely by having each member narrate different parts of the movie. The members of The Four Seasons narrate in the same style one would find in a Martin Scorcese movie. In particular, the style of narration recalls Martin Scorcese's most recent movie, "The Wolf of Wall Street" in that each member stops in a scene to talk directly to the camera just as Leonardo DiCaprio did in that film.

Of course, the movie draws a closer comparison to "Goodfellas", another Martin Scorcese movie. First of all, the lead guitarist of the band is Tommy DeVito, which of course is the name of Joe Pesci's character in "Goodfellas". Then we have the fact that Joe Pesci is even in this movie himself! Well, not Joe Pesci the actor playing a character, but rather an actor playing the character of Joe Pesci. He even gets to say something similar to his famous line from "Goodfellas" when someone comments about something being funny to him. The makers of "Jersey Boys" are clearly aware of the inevitable comparisons that will be made about it to Martin Scorcese's film and so the movie just jumps ahead and makes them itself.

The thing about the Martin Scorcese style narration in this movie, however, is that it seems a little random. I've read that the original musical is separated into four parts of which are each told from the perspective of one member of the band. The movie, at least as far as I can recall, didn't seem to follow any real formula as to which band member was going to be narrating at which time. The early days of the story are mostly narrated by Tommy DeVito, but after that I didn't notice a particular formula for who was going to narrate in any given scene. It seemed to jump around from different narrators at different moments with no real pattern. At least, that's how it felt to me.

The narration is not the only thing that feels familiar about this movie, however. The story is one that could draw comparisons to, say, a movie like Tom Hanks' "That Thing You Do!" to name just one. However, a comparison to that movie only seems to show how accurate Tom Hanks' movie was. Basically, the story of "Jersey Boys" may seem familiar because it seems to be the story of so many different musicians in history. Since a lot of those musicians have been portrayed on screen both directly in their own biopics and indirectly through fictional musicians based on elements of real ones, well, the story can feel a little similar to ones seen before.

Also familiar is the use of Christopher Walken in this movie. Christopher Walken is totally fine in his performance in this movie, but the role he plays here is one that seems almost too easy and too obvious for him to play. Basically, he is a mafia boss with a love of music. Being the head of a criminal organization is something Christopher Walken has been seen to do on screen before and the love of music is something all fans of him know that he has. However, there is something entertaining rather than boring about seeing Christopher Walken play such a familiar role here. It almost lends a certain authenticity to the story being told here and the transition of this story from stage to screen. I mean, if Christopher Walken, in my opinion one of the greatest screen presences of all time, is playing the kind of role that he has already proven himself to be good at in your movie then you pretty much don't have to worry about whether the movie did a good job transitioning from stage to screen.

One thing that I will say is that the transition from stage to screen isn't always as cinematic as it could be. Some of the music I thought could have been utilized in a more interesting way. Some of the music is just filmed plainly and without much emotional context to the rest of the story. For the most part, director Clint Eastwood does a good job taking a stage musical and translating it to screen, however. There are certainly some songs that are used to great effect, but I'll confess that often this is due to how the music fits with the story and the characters versus how it was actually filmed. Still, while the movie doesn't have as bold a style as it could have, it does succeed in creating a good, consistent, and not stage over-the-top tone unlike some other stage to screen translations.

After seeing the movie, I found myself in discussion with other people, including a musician, about the lives of musicians and the politics of the music business. What I found from this discussion is that this movie has a lot of truth to it. The story of The Four Seasons as told here seems to be the story of so many other musicians both from the past and from today. So, I find myself thinking even more so that this movie is one of the more honest biopics out there.

However, I should say that this movie cleverly leaves some things out. For example, there is no mention in the movie of the fact that The Four Seasons usually did not play the instruments on their recordings. Now, I don't think the movie shows them playing any instruments in the studio so it doesn't try to falsify this fact, but it also gives no mention to the fact that the band portrayed in this movie didn't even play the versions of the songs that most people have heard. Sure, they sang on the recordings and we do see them do that here, but they mostly only played their instruments live. So, the movie doesn't quite tell a full lie on this subject, but it doesn't shed any light onto the truth of the situation either. I understand that there is only so much story that can be told in one movie and perhaps, like the bass player of many a band, a studio musician's fate is to be unknown, but it still seems like an important fact that the movie leaves out.

The most obvious thing that the movie leaves out revolves around The Four Seasons' hit song "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)". This song was their last big hit and was a real comeback for The Four Seasons. It is one of their most well known songs and it is actually the first song we hear in the movie. Before we even see the first shot of the film, as the company logos are just beginning to appear on screen, we hear this song begin to play. I thought to myself that the movie may be following the formula of many biopics in starting at the end of its story and then going back to the beginning, but that didn't really end up being the case.

Although "Jersey Boys" starts its soundtrack with The Four Seasons' last real big hit, it still starts the movie at the beginning of the story. I thought that maybe the movie was all going to lead up to a climax in which "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" was created, but I was wrong in that sense too. The movie actually never shows the creation of that particular song. We see the band rise to fame and then we see them fall apart, but we never really see this particular comeback. We see moments after the song was already created, but we never see how or just who created that particular song.

The omission of this part of the story of The Four Seasons really sticks out because it is such a well known song and because it is the first and last song that you hear in the movie! It would be weird for the movie to not feature this song at all, but to feature it so prominently without any kind of explanation as to how the song came about is almost just as weird. The end credits, where the movie suddenly turns into a big choreographed musical number set to the song, only furthers this notion.

Now, the end credits to this movie really showcase an interesting aspect to the movie. As I said, the end credits feature a full-blown choreographed musical number like one you would see on the stage. It probably was based on a scene from the stage musical, but as I've never seen the musical, I couldn't say for sure. What I can say is that this musical number really shows the important decisions that go into adapting a musical into a movie. The musical number shown during the end credits is like nothing else seen in the movie. The movie is not a musical in the sense that the characters break out in song and start dancing and singing about things going on in their lives. The only music in the movie is performed by the band in the fashion that they did in real life. "Jersey Boys" is a musical movie in that it is about and features a lot of music, but it is not a movie musical like "West Side Story" to name just one.

The end credits musical number is also filmed in a way that no musical number on stage could ever be done. The stage is a limiting area. On film, there are no limits. So, in this musical number we see much more movement and a much bigger location than could be done on stage. It all feels a little strange though. The rest of the movie is not a musical in this way and so this scene really sticks out. I guess that's why the scene is during the end credits. It basically is there to differentiate itself from the rest of the movie, but the rest of the movie is still fresh in one's mind when viewing this scene and there is no break between this final scene and the rest of the movie.

It is also strange because of the use of "December 1963 (Oh, What a Night)" as its song. The placement of the song at the very beginning and very end of the movie would make one think that the creators of the movie feel it is one of their most important songs, but as I said before, the movie never spends anytime in the story with the song. The song seems just as separate from the rest of the movie as the end credits scene it is used in. Yet, still, one gets the impression both from real life knowledge and from the movie's use of the song that it is one of the most important in The Four Seasons' career.

So, the end credits scene is strange both for its choice of music and its choice of how it portrays that music on screen. As I said, the movie does not have a musical format to it aside from this one scene. That doesn't mean that it completely ignores the roots of the story as a stage musical. Three of the band members are played here by actors who played the same roles in the stage version of the story. Everyone does a good job here for the most part, but there are certain times when it seemed clear to me that these actors were from the stage and not regulars in front of the camera. In fact, I didn't know who these actors were when watching the movie, but I could sense that they must have been actors from the original stage musical.

There is a big difference acting on the stage versus acting in front of a camera. The stage is a limiting area for one to perform in. The seats in a theater also limit the perspective that the audience gets when viewing these actors. The camera has no limits. Cameras can get really wide and epic shots full of movement through big areas, but more importantly cameras can also get close-ups. When the camera in "Jersey Boys" is close-up on John Lloyd Young, the actor who plays Frankie Valli, there is just something missing in the eyes. I could tell that this actor must have been from the stage and not used to the screen because of the way he didn't use his eyes or any kind of more subtle expression when the camera was in a close-up on him. It didn't surprise me, however, to find out that the one band member not played by an actor from the original stage musical was Tommy DeVito as he seemed to get the most out of his performance on camera.

Now, the acting in "Jersey Boys" is still pretty good, but it is just missing a little something in certain moments that other actors more familiar with being in front of a camera might have given to the movie. The people portrayed in this movie also might look a little over-the-top like characters in some musicals, but actually I feel that this was just how the people really did look. I think the movie mostly stays true to how the people would have acted, looked, and sounded in real life, but there is definitely at least one moment that I thought was made more theatrical than the real thing.

There is a moment in "Jersey Boys" where you see The Four Seasons performing some music on a television show and they are really moving around and waving their hands and have all sorts of emotion on their faces. I've seen real footage of the band playing on television before and the reality, at least in the footage I've seen, is that they were mostly pretty stiff on the stage and sometimes were cramped together so tightly they couldn't have moved much if they wanted to. Sometimes they had smiles on their faces, but at other times, in the real footage, they looked uncomfortable and not sure what what to do on the stage. The truth doesn't necessarily make for a scene as fun and pleasant to look at, but I feel like it would have provided an interesting and more honest look about how people performed on stage back then. I mean, they were performing at a time where so many things, including certain movements on stage, might have been seen as controversial. Bands didn't play the way on stage that they do now and I think instead of pretending that they did that the movie could have shown how it really was. It would have been educational, honest, and more interesting.

As for the music itself, "Jersey Boys" features some really well-done musical performances. I know this movie made me start to listen to more songs from the real band and from this era of music. It also made me do more research into their history.

Overall, "Jersey Boys" seems to be a pretty accurate movie. I don't have first hand knowledge, or even all that much second hand knowledge, about the story of The Four Seasons, but I do know that the story here seems so universal to so many other musical stories I have heard. So, in the end, "Jersey Boys" works both as a celebration of some popular music that may have helped shape music history and as a look at a story that should be familiar to most musicians or anyone familiar with their stories. However, "Jersey Boys" is not just a movie for musicians or music aficionados. "Jersey Boys" tells a story that anyone can relate to. At its core, "Jersey Boys" is a story that showcases the various talents and flaws that humans may have and the ups and downs that inevitably come within the story of anyone's life.

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