“Jersey Boys” is the best kind of movie. It’s got mobsters, musical numbers, retro fashions and, most importantly, a thrilling backdrop of the real-life rise of four legends of American pop. Based on the jukebox musical of the same name, “Jersey Boys” chronicles the formation, success and breakup of Rock and Roll Hall of Fame members Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, a 1960s vocal group known for hits such as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Working My Way Back to You.”
The Clint Eastwood-directed film opens with Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), the wise-guy narrator and a founding member of the group, sauntering right up to the camera and asking a question that begs to be asked: “You wanna know the real story?”
DeVito explains that, in Belleville, New Jersey, where angel-voiced Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) grew up in the 1950s, there were only three ways out: join the army, get mobbed up or become famous. Under the patronage and mentorship of mob boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken), Castelluccio — who soon renames himself Frankie Valli — and his bandmates are working on two out of the three. It’s not long before DeVito lands himself in prison for a failed heist, but despite such an inauspicious beginning, Valli’s voice is bound for stardom, and DeVito has to the boldness to get it there.
Once Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) on bass and songwriting wunderkind Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) join the group, the movie finally hits its stride as a true musical. From four-part harmonies sung over the telephone to tear-inducing television performances, Eastwood presents a fun, albeit familiar, “Behind the Music”-type view of Four Season’s rise to the top of the charts. Only once the band has found success, however, does the film truly dig into the story of the interpersonal relationships responsible for both making and breaking the group.
“The story and the psychology of these guys just comes out much more to the forefront than you can ever imagine on stage,” Young, who also played Valli in the stage version of “Jersey Boys,” said in an interview with The Daily Californian. “(Eastwood) was very interested in the side — of this Italian American segment of society of this period — of someone holding a grudge forever. These are very dramatic men and Clint has a reputation for really getting into the drama between characters, especially that weird sort of tumultuous male bonding. Clint brought that interest of his own to that side of the story, and you find that that darkness comes out much more to the forefront in this version of ‘Jersey Boys’ than it does in the stage version.”
Although the musical numbers in their levity do steal the show, moviegoers are likely to leave with more than just a renewed appreciation for the band’s songs. In the transition from stage show to film, the story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons has space to take on new life by allowing the leads — three of whom are revising their roles from the stage versions — to reinterpret their characters with greater detail.
“You’re able to really focus in on a specific moment and really work—literally, from every angle—that particular moment,” Lomenda explained. “So, for me, I found it really enlightening and kind of liberating, because on stage, you’re running into the wings to go to a costume change. So you are literally out of breath in some cases, but there’s really an ability to breathe on set and explore this in a totally different way, which is great. We’ve all performed this over a thousand times each, so to see the same material in a totally different set of eyes is wild.”
While Eastwood succeeds at making “Jersey Boys” refreshingly thoughtful and accessible, he does little to root the film in the context of its time, save for a dose of sugar-coated misogyny and some painfully dated turtleneck-cardigan combos. The story of an entire era in American music history is narrowed down to just four men, without reference to their influences or competitors.
Although lacking in scope, however, “Jersey Boys” still manages to be infectiously appealing. By the time the opening bars of closer “December 1963 (Oh What a Night)” start playing, it’s nearly impossible to resist singing along.
“Jersey Boys” opens Friday at Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.