'Jersey Boys' performers outshine off-key screenplay

The Fresno BeeJune 18, 2014 

The traditional way of transforming a stage musical into a feature film is to retain the spontaneous performances where people break into song at any moment. That was the approach used in film adaptations of musicals such as "The Wiz," "Rock of Ages" and "Mama Mia!"

True fans of musicals have no problem with such a design. There are those who find the impromptu performances to be so jarring they make the movie version hard to enjoy.

Clint Eastwood found a way to make a musical for people who don't necessarily like musicals with his big-screen adaptation of "Jersey Boys." Except for a marvelous curtain call finale, the film is structured so that every tune performed in this biopic of the musical group Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons takes place in a very organic way — concert, recording session, etc. This approach makes the movie more akin to "Ray" or "The Rose" and less tied to the musical theater tag.

Little has changed from the story line of the original stage production. The film follows a group of young New Jersey guys who have more of a talent for singing than they do for working with the mob. Frankie (John Lloyd Young), Tommy (Vincent Piazza), Bob (Erich Bergen) and Nick (Michael Lomenda) decide to pursue a singing career. They bask in the early success but quickly learn that fame comes with a price.

Two things have to work in a biopic about a musical act: The performances have to feel real and the story has to be interesting.

Eastwood's way of presenting the performances — combined with the musical skills of the actors (particularly Young) — makes the music part a sweet note. Whether they are performing at a small club or on the TV show "American Bandstand," the performances are crisp, energetic and well-directed.

Even when Eastwood turns down the music to let the actors talk directly to the camera, the movie never misses a beat.

It does help that Young won the Tony Award for Best Leading Actor in a Musical in 2006 for his role as Valli in Broadway's "Jersey Boys." It's obvious that the role has become so familiar to him that it's less acting and more just letting the character come through him.

The sour note comes with the story. The film covers so many years — the mid-'60s to the band's induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990 — that too much of the story gets skimmed over, from the demise of Valli's marriage to the tragedy of his daughter's death. Just when something gets interesting, the guys perform another song.

Eastwood allows his actors to talk directly to the camera, just as they did in the stage version. These are some of the better moments because they offer insights that otherwise aren't there. More of this would have filled in some of the thin spots in the story.

The screenplay by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice isn't as rich as the music. Had the writers gone into more depth with the story, it would have been in better harmony with the performances. Although the story is weak, the performances are so good that you won't notice the flaws because your foot will be tapping so loudly.

Movie review

"Jersey Boys," rated R for language. Stars John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Michael Lomenda. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Running time: 134 minutes. Grade: B

Theaters and times

 

TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com. TV and movie critic Rick Bentley can be reached at (559) 441-6355, rbentley@fresnobee.com or @RickBentley1 on Twitter. Read his blog at www.fresnobeehive.com.

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