It is unfair to condemn a pop music biopic for its family resemblance to most any other entry in the genre, since the history of one pop act’s rise and fall is more or less the same as another. Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys is by turns a light-hearted, then solemn account of ‘60s hitmakers Franky Valli and the Four Seasons. That it does not show us anything that we have not seen before, whether in Ray, The Buddy Holly Story or Walk the Line, is at least proof that Eastwood has not grown so intoxicated with critical plaudits in recent years that he has grown incapable of making anything not calculated to take center stage at next season’s Oscars. There is no attempt in Jersey Boys to disguise the fact that it is a loose adaptation of a rather breezy Broadway musical; it is relatively innocent of self-importance, at least for the work of a man who made a movie with a Latin title about Nelson Mandela and how professional rugby can heal a nation’s soul.
But Jersey Boys is free of such pretentions. There is no suggestion that Mr. Valli and Co. were underrated musical geniuses cut down by the slings and arrows of youthful indiscipline, critical indifference, plane crashes or any of the other standard culprits. They were four guys from Newark who wanted to leave the town and its second generation parochialism behind them. In one early scene, Valli promises his girlfriend that he is going to be “bigger than Sinatra” a few minutes after we have seen a photograph of Old Blue Eyes sitting next to one of Pope Pius XII on the mantelpiece of Valli’s childhood home. As might be expected, the band makes the most of its tenuous Mafia connections (cleverly supplied by Christopher Walken) to get a place in the spotlight, and many of the film’s best comic moments are built around the band’s early ineptitude in marketing itself. None of the four members can agree on a name until one is supplied by the neon sign of a random bowling alley. Two of them have criminal records. Valli ( in real life born Francesco Castallucio) is a singularly uncharismatic frontman; he is short, easily put upon, and as might be expected, unsure of himself. His best friend, guitarist Tommy DeVito, is a vainglorious buffoon with all the “made guy” recklessness which would ensure his demise within the first thirty minutes of a Martin Scorcese picture with the same title. The first act of Jersey Boys establishes without any room for doubt the factors which will undermine the principal characters in the last.
The film’s comic first half is stronger than its more ponderous downhill stretch. There is a fair bit of fourth-wall-breaking narration of the four band members used to good effect, and the director even manages to work in a bit of deprecating self-reference in a scene where we see the band’s keyboardist, Bob Gaudio, watching an old episode of Rawhide, the face of a novice Eastwood on the black and white TV, as if to say, “Yes, there was a time when any suggestion that this B-level western star would eventually garner academy award nominations on a yearly basis would have seemed as ill-advised as, say, Paint Your Wagon.”
The plot sequence of a genre piece like Jersey Boys can only rise so far above its own material, and frankly, the material is leaden at points. We see the long-foreshadowed falling out between the group’s members. One band member gets $500,000 in the hole with a loanshark and Valli bails him out in an act of financial martyrdom which he rationalizes to his girlfriend on the grounds that his friend “couldn’t help himself.” The same spirit of patient fatalism floats over the full length of the picture. In fact, when was the last time we saw a movie about a set of celebrities who destroyed a career when they manifestly could help themselves? The pitfalls on the road to glory are more dramatically significant when they are not unavoidable, and Macbeth loses half his human interest if we watch his tragedy with the false assumption that he has to be taken in by the witches’ prophecies. It is hard to say much for the dramatic vitality of Jersey Boys for this reason. We enjoy watching their career successes and are inclined to shrugoff their personal failures. And as the credits roll, there is not much more to be said, based on the story told in the previous two hours, than that The Four Seasons were exactly the sort of band who turned out eminently hummable tunes as difficult to get out of one’s head as it is difficult to remember who it was who wrote them. Honestly, I walked into the theater thinking that I was going to be watching a movie about Dion and the Belmonts, but then, I wasn’t alive in 1960.