Frankie Valli, the Four Seasons and the Rockin’ Good Music of the 1960s and ‘70sCulture Watch
tags: movie reviews, Jersey Boys
Jersey Boys, the movie about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is, indeed, just too good to be true.
The flashy film about the legendary musical group that opened on nationwide on Friday is deep, complex and very emotional. That’s why the stage show in New York that it is based on was so successful. This is not another bouncy juke box musical about the 1960s boppers with greasy hair and fast cars. It is, at the same time, a real tear jerker and a marvelous testament to loyalty and friendship.
And oh, that music!
The movie (Warner Bros.), that tracks the group from the late 1950s to its induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990, is anchored by their complicated story, not the hit songs. It is one of the best tales about American entertainment history – ever. It also has one of the best soundtracks in film history, loaded with all of those Four Seasons hits such as Rag Doll and December, 1963.
The story about four street kids from New Jersey is chronological. We first meet Frankie Valli as a lead singer with a group that constantly changes its name. The boys are casually connected to New Jersey mobsters, spend time in jail (not Valli) and are, like so many finger-snapping street corner quartets, going absolutely nowhere.
Then they meet Bob Gaudio, the teenaged songwriting wizard. He gives them a whole new sound, starting with Sherry. Bob Crew produces their records and they take off into the rock and roll stratosphere. Some of the movie is narrated by the boys, who turn to the camera to explain a part of the plot. It is woven into the script rather well.
Midway into the movie, a mostly true story written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, it is revealed that Tommy DeVito, the scatterbrained organizer of the group, Mr. tough guy, has fallen nearly $150,000 in debt to the mob and taken nearly $500,000 of the money they withheld to pay their taxes. Instead of cutting him loose, as just about anyone would do, the Four Seasons work their butts off for more than a year to earn the money and pay back every nickel to the mob, preventing serious injuries to DeVito.
That friendship, friendship no matter what, and loyalty to each other, through thick and thin, good times and bad, is the heart of the movie, along with terrible personal tragedy that befalls Valli. At the end, filled with just as many tragedies as triumphs, you have to admire all of them, especially Valli, for what they did for each other under the worst of circumstances.
On the musical side of the film, director Clint Eastwood has nicely attached their great songs to moments in their lives. They see a movie in which a grown woman sheds tears and they write Big Girls Don’t Cry. You see an adorable child and they write My Eyes Adored You. They see teenaged boys getting humiliated by the girls they love and they write Walk like a Man. The songs flow nicely.
The most important thing about the Four Season is that they were an American group with American music. They were our answer to the Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The fabled British invasion may have overwhelmed the music of most American groups, but not the Four Seasons.
I am from New Jersey and grew up on their music. I was a teenager when they hit it big with Sherry. Their songs were the landscape of my life, of the lives of everybody in America in their 50s and 60s today. There was a certain sound that they had, especially with Valli’s unique falsetto voice, that served as an anthem.
Director Eastwood recognized the strength of the story and managed to package its 30 plus years neatly into a two and a half hour film. He has a deft touch as a director, whether with a rock and roll musical or a frightening street toughs story such as Gran Torino. He also wisely cast most of the Broadway musical actors in the film. John Lloyd Young as Valli, Vincent Piazza as DeVito, Erich Bergen as Gaudio and Michael Lomenda as Nick are all excellent. Also quite good are Christopher Walken as a mobster, Mike Doyle as Bob Crewe and Renee Marino and Erica Piccininni as the two loves of Valli’s life.
There are two problems with an otherwise fine film. First, the initial twenty minutes drags and the film does not really get going until the group starts to cut records. Eastwood should have trimmed this and made the movie run faster. Second, while you learn much about music history, you learn next to nothing about American history in that turbulent era, that included the Vietnam War, the Civil Rights movement, the women’s movement, drug epidemics and student unrest. The success of the Four Seasons, and all of their troubles, should have been set in the context of the era. What made our appreciation of the group so monumental was that listening to their rock and roll songs gave us hours and hours of radio escape from the terrors of the world around us. Just to hear Bye Bye Baby Sherry, Dawn or Big Man in Town while driving down a highway late at night pushed away the demons for a while.
Even so, the show shines. The final scene, in which the men sing and dance their way down a city street, is wonderful. It is so good that at the end of the movie at the theater where I saw it nobody got up and left. They all sat right through to the very last song as the soundtrack as the credits rolled. One last song and one last memory. Then everybody stood and roared their approval.
It is, in fact, just too good to be true – but it is.
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