Nine years ago, Frankie Valli was rescued from oldies-station oblivion with the smash Broadway musical Jersey Boys. The show chronicles the real-life rise-and-fall-and-rise-again of four crooners from the mobbed-up mean streets of 1960s New Jersey who called themselves the Four Seasons and cranked out a seemingly endless string of hit records, including the love ditty ”Sherry,” the triumphant ”Walk Like a Man,” and the bouncy bubblegum bop of ”Big Girls Don’t Cry.” The songs are timeless. But so are a lot of songs from that Motown and Phil Spector era. What made the Four Seasons magical was Valli’s voice — an impossibly high-pitched nasal falsetto that sounded like a prepubescent angel who’d huffed a tank of helium.
With Jersey Boys’ receipts still pouring in on the Great White Way, the notion of adapting the musical into a splashy song-and-dance Hollywood biopic must have been too juicy to resist. In fact, the only thing that might seem surprising about the Jersey Boys movie is the man squinting behind the camera, Clint Eastwood. But the pairing actually makes more sense than you’d think. Anyone who saw Eastwood’s 1988 Charlie Parker film, Bird, knows that the guy’s always been a not-so-closeted hepcat with a discerning set of ears. The biggest problem is that the film, written by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, never makes a convincing case for why Valli the man or the singer matters beyond the music in the way that Ray and Walk the Line did for Ray Charles and Johnny Cash. Such are the perils of adapting a somewhat one-dimensional stage show.
Fortunately, Eastwood is far wiser on the casting front. As Valli, John Lloyd Young is pretty close to perfection. That’s no shocker, really, as he won a Tony in 2006 for his portrayal of Valli on the boards. With his slicked-back pompadour and wardrobe of sharkskin suits, Young looks more like the late Bruno Kirby than Valli. But when he opens his mouth, you believe you’re listening to the real deal. He finds every ounce of sweat, aftershave, and salad dressing that made up Valli’s one-of-a-kind voice. As his fellow Four Seasons, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen, and Vincent Piazza are equally spot-on, even if all of their bada-bing lingo occasionally makes them sound like they’re competing in a Chazz Palminteri impersonation contest. (Both Lomenda and Bergen starred in the stage version as well.)
Eastwood has never been the kind of filmmaker to grab you by the lapels or hot-dog with flashy storytelling tricks. You can walk in halfway through just about any of his movies and know exactly where you are. His laid-back traditionalism has always been part of his appeal, though. And in chronicling the careers of Valli & Co., he charts a predictably linear through-line: the band’s hardscrabble Italian-American roots, which lead them to a sentimental wiseguy (Christopher Walken) who takes them under his wing; their first flirtation with fame; the downward slide of excess, money trouble, and infighting; and a redemptive third act in which they let bygones be bygones when they’re inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1990. The movie’s decades-spanning scope requires the 34-year-old Young to play Valli from age 16 to 60. As good as he is, he isn’t done any favors by Eastwood’s makeup team. You’d think that after all the grousing over Leonardo DiCaprio’s distracting mugful of old-age putty in J. Edgar, the director would have paid more attention to the unconvincing wrinkles and jowls in the final stretch of Jersey Boys. But alas.
Still, as flat and pitchy as the film sometimes feels, what saves it are those nostalgic, soaring doo-wop numbers (especially ”Sherry”) and Eastwood’s measured doses of directorial playfulness, such as when the actors cheekily break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience, as they did on Broadway. This trick doesn’t always work, but when it does, and Valli or one of his bandmates turns to the camera, winks, and dishes about how the reality of events clashes with what we’re actually witnessing on screen, it gooses the film with a giddy jolt of jukebox electricity. B-