Just too sort of ok to be true.
Perhaps the most remarkable thing about Clint Eastwood’s new film, Jersey Boys, is the inclusion of the character of Joe Pesci. The character of Joe Pesci is, of course, based on the actual Joe Pesci but played by a man named Joseph Russo. Both Russo and Eastwood seem to be under the impression that Pesci behaved like his Goodfellas character Tommy DeVito (curiously and confusingly named after a member of The Four Seasons) when he was a young man, yet to become an actor. At one point Pesci asks ‘Funny how?’, which must surely be a reference to DeVito’s famous outburst in Scorsese’s film. What’s even more amazing is how Eastwood’s film completely fails to recognised the peculiar humour in Pesci’s inclusion in the true story of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. During one of the many times one of the members of The Four Seasons addresses the audience directly, Pesci is introduced as being one of, if not the, decisive connection that brought the band together. And then the film moves on. Wait, what?
Franki Valli (John Lloyd Young) is a young man on the brink of entering into the life of a hoodlum that he doesn’t necessarily want. His best friend is Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who incites Valli toward criminal activity but also encourages his natural, albeit outlandish, vocal gifts. The two are eventually introduced to the youthful Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergin) who appears to have been responsible for writing most of the hits songs that The Four Seasons produced over the lifespan. The group discover a natural chemistry and begin a steady climb to stardom. There is a fourth member, by his own admission the ‘Ringo’ of the group, who remains largely inactive for much of the film and ironically ultimately leaves the band for getting no attention.
The narrative connections to Scorsese’s work extends into Jersey Boys‘ creative sensibilities. In fact, the entire film feels like a curious blend of a musical and Scorsese, with none of the dynamic energy of either. While the film isn’t quite a musical, the sombre tone that Eastwood has wholeheartedly embraced with all his recent work doesn’t connect with the story he’s trying to tell. The rise of the Four Seasons is an inherently compelling story, but Eastwood inexplicably decides to focus on petty bickering than the music, or even the success that must have been plentiful.
Jersey Boys fares best when the music comes to the fore, allowing the naturally catchy tunes of The Four Seasons to do Eastwood’s work for him. With one notable exception toward the conclusion, the film is not presented as a musical in the sense that every performance is entirely diegetic. While this does reduce the variety with which Eastwood can present each song, restricted essentially to the band either in a recording studio or performing on stage, the consistently energetic music makes these moments the best in the movie.
John Lloyd Young as Valli is outstanding to the point that…you can’t take your eyes of him. Piazza as Tommy DeVito and Christopher Walken as Jersey mob figure Gyp DeCarlo are also standouts although the rest of the cast fail to make much of an impression, particularly next to the immensely magnetic presence of Young. The issue with these characters is that they’re astonishingly one-note. Valli is a loyal family man who, as far as the film suggests, rarely behaved poorly in his entire life despite a family breakdown and the ambiguous death of his daughter. DeVito is also singularly mean-spirited and distrustful and, despite the character admitting himself that there are always two sides to the story, we never see any other side of him.
Thanks to some strong central performances, a slick sense of production and the enormously catchy music of The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys is never dull. The real issue is Eastwood’s muted sense of style, which does not suit such a story of discovery and creative energy. There are two sides of the story, like DeVito says, and not all fame is champagne and caviar. But surely a lot of it would be.
Side Note: “Anyhow, here’s the point: without Joe Pesci, we likely wouldn’t have The Four Seasons, Jersey Boys (the play or the film), Goodfellas or My Cousin Vinny. There are likely plenty more links to be made, but probably best to stop here before the universe collapses on itself.” – Eric Dodds, TIME Magazine (Full article here.)