Successfully adapting a Broadway musical into a movie is a tricky prospect. Any attempts to replicate the intimacy and impact of a live performance usually result in failure, but overplay your cinematic hand and the final product is cornier than the county fair.
What makes “Jersey Boys” a bit of a wildcard when it comes to musicals-to-movies adaptations is it is also a biopic of famous musicians, a subject safely within Hollywood’s wheelhouse, but a genre that comes fraught with its own tricky hang-ups.
Of course, that’s why you bring in a guy like Clint Eastwood to direct and allow his steady hand and straightforward style to keep things from going off the track. And wouldn’t you know it, Dirty Harry pretty much pulls it off.
“Jersey Boys” is the story of the Four Seasons, one of the most iconic and influential groups of the 1960s. Songs like “Sherry,” “Walk Like a Man,” and “Big Girls Don’t Cry” are so ingrained into popular culture it feels like they’ve always been there, like the Rocky Mountains or Jerry Lewis.
But how the group came together and then eventually fell apart isn’t nearly as well known, but fascinating enough to make you want to hang around for more than just the music.
“Jersey Boys” stands out as one of the best-written musicals of all time, a low bar to be sure, but still it counts for something. Marshall Brickman (best known for co-writing “Annie Hall” and a few other Woody Allen flicks) and Rick Elice co-wrote the book for the musical and also wrote the screenplay, which means all of the great dialogue and novel narrative device remain intact.
In the movie, like in the musical, each member of the group narrates a section of the story by talking directly to the camera and giving his own unique take on the goings-on.
In addition to Brickman and Elice, Eastwood went to Broadway to nab big chunks of his cast, including three of the four leads. John Lloyd Young plays Frankie Valli, the lead singer with the epic falsetto, and brought home a Tony Award for the role.
Michael Lomenda, who did his time with the touring production, plays fourth-wheel and bass vocalist Nick Massi. Erich Bergen, also off the touring production, comes in as baby-faced songwriter Bob Gaudio.
The only lead to not have played his part onstage is Vincent Piazza, who certainly holds his own as headstrong troublemaker Tommy DeVito.
In an expanded role, Christopher Walken expertly drops in as local wise guy Gyp DeCarlo, who figures in quite a bit as the boys’ unofficial fairy Godfather.
The music is great as you would expect and Young does a decent Frankie Valli, although let’s be honest, there’s only one Frankie Valli.
If you wanted to knock Eastwood for anything it would be for playing it too close to the original Broadway production. There aren’t many cinematic touches to hang your hat on, although one shot of the exterior of a music-industry high-rise with various auditions occurring on each floor is a nice flourish.
Ultimately, this is a movie that rests on the strength of the music and the screenplay, and both are impressive enough to paper over any other shortcomings.
What it comes down to is the fact the stage production is great when compared to other stage productions, while the movie is merely good when compared to other movies.
It’s like the Eiffel Tower in Las Vegas, it’s pretty cool to see, but not nearly as cool as seeing the real thing.
“Jersey Boys” is rated R for language throughout.