His ornery tough guy mystique carrying on well into the twilight of his filmmaking career, Clint Eastwood may not seem like the most obvious choice to direct a razzle-dazzle adaptation of Broadway musical, Jersey Boys. Many forget his excellent 1988 biopic, Bird, on jazz musician Charlie "Bird" Parker, and for years he pursued a remake of A Star is Born with Beyonce (!!!) in the lead role. Eastwood is a music lover at heart and no doubt he has a soft spot for the wailing pop jingles of 1960s quartet Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Admiration for the era and the band's chart-topping hits give the film more spark than many stage-to-screen adaptations, but we've seen their particular brand of rise and fall story so many times that it lacks any real surprises.
You could be forgiven for thinking you'd accidentally sat down to an episode of The Sopranos at the onset as New Jersey nice-guy Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) hangs out with his two-bit hustler friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), makes good with jovial mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), and commits petty crimes while trying to stay out of trouble. Frankie's voice is a gift from God and everybody in their Italian-American neighborhood knows it, including the local police who bend over backwards to keep him out of prison. Tommy is a hot head and trouble magnet, but he looks out for Frankie knowing someday he could be "bigger than Sinatra". Members of the group, which include booming-voiced pal Nick (Michael Lomenda) and ambitious songwriter/performer Bob Guadio (Erich Bergen), frequently stop to narrate the story directly to us. It's an annoying holdover from the play and shows Eastwood's lack of imagination as a director that he couldn't come up with an alternative better suited for film.
What happens next is basically playing the dramatic hits of every pop music biopic ever made. Dreamgirls, The Five Heartbeats, That Thing You Do!, The Commitments, we've seen this story of meteoric rises and crashing falls so much they can be rattled off by rote. The group struggles to make ends meet and secure gigs early on as Frankie grows in confidence and range. Upon gaining the fame and success they always wanted, it isn't long before some internal squabble ruins everything and family problems intercede. Frankie marries an Italian firecracker of a woman who, as Tommy warned, would eat him alive. She eventually does but not before they have kids who grow into troubled teens. Frankie's family problems are tossed in almost as an afterthought, and feature the creepiest use of the song "My Eyes Adored You" ever. Let's just say it's not a lullaby meant to be sung to your daughter. Other Four Seasons hits "Sherry", "Walk Like A Man", "Can't Take My Eyes Off Of You", and "Big Girls Don't Cry" are beautifully and perfectly performed. Young earned a Tony award for his portrayal of Valli in the Broadway musical and he's probably one of the few who can match the singer's impressive range. Many of the tracks sound painfully outdated and kind of silly nowadays but in proper context they work.
For what it's worth, the film never takes itself too seriously and often has fun playing with the ironic twists of fate that drive stories such as this. So when the band is desperate for a new name we get a hotel sign that literally lights up "The Four Seasons", and Kirk Douglas' role in Ace in the Hole provides an unexpected title for one of the group's chart-topping hits. Joe Pesci's instrumental part to play in the group's formation is a frequent source of humor; played with all of the actor's quirks by Joey Russo.
But there's a lack of pizazz that only emerges in the film's dazzling final performance, and one can't help but wish Eastwood had gone for spectacle rather than his usual workmanlike direction. There's a big dance number that needs more Walken, and we never see how the Four Seasons are in relation to other acts of the era. Lip service is paid to their "new sound" but what was the old one? Did they influence other bands and did others influence them? What was their cultural impact, if any? This is probably the most unabashedly nostalgic film Eastwood has ever done, and while that will be enough for fans of the musical it wouldn't have hurt to show us what made Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons so special.