HEDY WEISS: Dance party finale ends ‘Jersey Boys’ on a high note
By HEDY WEISS Theater Critic June 19, 2014 7:04PM
While Vincent Piazza (third from left) is new to “Jersey Boys,” co-stars John Lloyd Young (from left), Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda come from the stage musical. | WARNER BROS.
Updated: July 21, 2014 2:09PM
The great American movie musical has never fully vanished from the scene. But its “golden age” — stretching from the Astaire-Rogers marvels of the 1930s, to the Rodgers and Hammerstein classics of the 1950s, to “West Side Story,” “My Fair Lady” and “The Sound of Music” in the 1960s — was followed by a rocky period brought on by the sheer tsunami-like force of the rock revolution.
Broadway rebounded by way of its various versions of “the rock musical,” countless jukebox musicals and frequent transformations of tuneful Hollywood movies into stage productions. But things didn’t always snap into place on the screen. It might just be that as the rapid expansion of national tours of Broadway shows brought productions of live musicals to far more places in the country than ever before, the need for such films faded.
True, there were hits — “Evita,” “Moulin Rouge,” “Chicago” and “Dreamgirls” to name a few. But the allure of the movie musical has diminished.
But now comes “Jersey Boys,” director Clint Eastwood’s take on the megahit jukebox musical that debuted on Broadway in 2005. Frankly, Eastwood would not have been the first person I’d have named to helm this film, even though his love of music, particularly jazz, is widely known, as is the fact that he has composed the scores for many of his own films. Yet as it turns out, he has succeeded in transforming the stage musical without making it a slavish photocopy of the stage version, or diminishing its essential spirit. In fact, Eastwood has turned “Jersey Boys” into more of a play-with-music (and the music remains irresistible), though perfect it is not.
One of Eastwood’s smartest decisions was to cast the leading roles with Hollywood “unknowns.” Three of the Four Seasons are played by actors reprising their roles from various stage productions, including John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, and Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi. Vincent Piazza (of HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire”) plays Tommy DeVito. The choice of the weathered, charismatic Christopher Walken to play Gyp DeCarlo, the local mob kingpin who was Valli’s “godfather” in many ways, was inspired. The female characters are less well-developed, but that clearly reflects the story’s male viewpoint, and its time and place. The one exception is Eastwood’s exquisite direction of the heartbreaking scene that finds Valli trying to “save” his estranged 17-year-old daughter, Francine (the lovely Freya Tingley), as the two sit in a coffee shop.
Eastwood also very skillfully manages to make the stage convention of having the members of the group “step out” to address the audience work on film, with each man offering his view of events in Rashomon-like fashion, as they did in the theater. And he nails all the crucial elements of the story: the performance of the big hit songs (“Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Walk Like a Man,” “Bye Bye Baby,” “Who Loves You”); the differences in status between the tough, working-class Jersey kids, the more educated Gaudio and moneyed Manhattanites; the tense “background noise” of the group’s appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show,” and, most crucially, the meaning of a handshake, as opposed to a legal contract.
The movie’s penultimate scene, in which the original members of the Four Seasons unite at the group’s induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, benefits greatly from the ability of a camera to do vivid close-ups. And then there is Eastwood’s inspired idea for the film’s finale: a big dance party — a sort of Jersey street scene he envisioned as the cinematic equivalent of a curtain call. It assures that you leave the movie theater on a buoyant high note.