Sunday, June 29, 2014

Jersey Boys / ***½ (R)

Frankie Valli: John Lloyd Young
Tommy DeVito: Vincent Piazza
Bobby Guadio: Erich Bergen
Nick Massi: Michael Lomenda
Bob Crewe: Mike Doyle
Joey: Joseph Russo
Gyp DeCario: Christopher Walken

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice, based on their musical. Running time: 134 min. Rated R (for language throughout).

My father liked his pleasures simple. He was a man who enjoyed life to its fullest, and in that enjoyment he could appreciate movies and music at the most basic level. I did not get my level of standards for either art form from him. I developed that over years of appreciation and exploration. But, I did get my foundational enjoyment of them from him.

My father had a very select number of musical artists he would follow through anything. One of those groups was Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons. He loved that unique voice of Valli’s, and he loved the writing style of the songs that were penned mostly by Four Seasons member Bobby Gaudio and their producer Bob Crewe. There were also a select number of movie stars that he trusted implicitly to provide the type of movies he wanted to see. One of those people was Clint Eastwood. Eastwood never relied on the flash and flair of Hollywood, but on straightforward storytelling about men—who might be flawed—but could certainly be relied upon for doing what they do best. It is those qualities that bring together Clint Eastwood and the Four Seasons for the new movie musical “Jersey Boys”. I’ve no doubt he would’ve loved it as much as I.

“Jersey Boys” began as a Tony-winning Broadway play and didn’t have the smoothest trip to the big screen. Jon Favreau, of “Iron Man” fame, was originally slated to direct a production at Warner Bros. that fell apart.  At the same time Eastwood was prepping a remake of the classic Hollywood-basedmusical “A Star is Born” with Beyoncé in the lead. When that project fell apart, Eastwood eventually found his way to “Jersey Boys” and the match couldn’t be a better fit.

The story follows the group from before they were a group. Told in kind of a “GoodFellas” style, with the four members of the group telling the story from their own points of view, talking directly to the camera at times. We first meet Valli working in a barbershop shaving a small level Jersey gangster, Gyp DeCario. Eastwood enlists veteran showman Christopher Walken in the mentor role of the gangster, who doesn’t help the young musicians so much as encourage them.

The main cast is primarily unknowns with Vincent Piazza taking the role of the confidence man Tommy DeVito, whose daytime petty crimes don’t stop him from recruiting Frankie into his band with fellow prison rotation member Nick Massi, played as a sort of yes man to DeVito by Michael Lomenda. Eastwood takes his time in showing the development of the group through name changes, struggles to find gigs and further struggles getting noticed. Always at the center is Valli’s unique falsetto voice.

The key point in the story’s progression comes when DeVito enlists his friend, Joey Pesci—Yes, that Joe Pesci—to recruit a fourth member for the group. Joseph Russo is a wonder of casting as Pesci, perfectly capturing the Oscar-winner’s madcap charm long before Hollywood was aware of it, and threatening to steal the show in the same manner Pesci would in his future movie roles. Joey introduces the group to Gaudio, who would be the primary writer for most of their early hits. Erich Bergen presents Gaudio as the square peg of the group, who works with the rest out of confidence in his great talent as a songwriter.

It is John Lloyd Young, however, who carries the film as Valli. Young won the Tony for Best Actor in a Musical for his work originating the role in 2006 and deserves similar Oscar attention for his work here. He reminds me quite remarkably of a talented young performer I knew in college, who went on to become the most successful of our theater department class, currently working on Broadway himself. Young has a fire you can feel under the surface of every scene; and Eastwood utilizes it well, presenting Valli as the most grounded of the group, almost guarding the others against that fire underneath. Valli was married before the group gained their success and his family troubles become factors in the later scenes of the film.

The film has been accused of lacking energy and imagination, yet that’s precisely why I enjoyed it. So many stories about entertainers run along the same lines of the struggle to get noticed, the rise to fame, the fall from grace and the comeback. This story is no different. What distinguishes it is the fact that Eastwood doesn’t punctuate each movement with overbearing histrionics. He presents this monumental music group’s story as merely the lives of normal people. Yes, they have their ups and downs, but it never feels like their lives are some part of a musical production here. Eastwood does place a more traditional musical number in the end credits of the film, but the rest presents the music for what it was, a job that these four men had the special talents to perform. I believe my father would’ve appreciated that simplicity.

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