There are two reasons that Broadway's "Jersey Boys" has been selling out shows since 2005. One is a treasure trove of still-golden hits by Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, who straddled doo-wop, rock and disco with "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" and many others during the 1960s and '70s. The other reason is the fascinating, little-known story of how this chart-topping group couldn't escape its New Jersey mob ties even at the height of its success.
Clint Eastwood's adaptation re-creates "Jersey Boys" almost note for note and line for line, right down to the characters who step out of the action to address the audience. Several Broadway cast members make their film debuts to fine effect, and the movie is filled with in-the-studio details that will thrill fans of the early pop era. The play's buoyant energy and poignant nostalgia, however, are somehow missing.
There are glimmers, mostly from Vincent Piazza, a swaggering, soulful actor (HBO's "Boardwalk Empire") who plays Tommy DeVito, a small-time criminal and band leader. It's DeVito who taps Valli (a very good John Lloyd Young, who won a Tony for the role on Broadway) for his soaring, gender-bending falsetto. Also reprising their stage roles are Michael Lomenda as bassist Nick Massi, and Erich Bergen as the uptight but brilliant songwriter Bob Gaudio, whose yearning chords turned Valli's voice into a pop Stradivarius. Christopher Walken cakewalks as the avuncular mobster Gyp DeCarlo, who repeatedly bails the band out of hot water.
At its best, "Jersey Boys" moves and grooves like a musical "Goodfellas," but it can also be as exasperating as a scratched-up LP. Just when it finds its rhythm, it misses a beat. The dialogue that sounded so sharp on the stage now sounds, well, stagy, while the dramatic scenes (Renée Marino and Freya Tingley play Valli's wife and daughter) feel obligatory.
Eastwood's approach falls somewhere between Rob Marshall's splashy "Chicago" and Taylor Hackford's formulaic "Ray," and the result is an unconvincing air of half-reality. The story is still compelling, though, and so are all those songs.
PLOT How a group of small-time hoods from New Jersey became Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons
RATING R (language throughout)
CAST John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen, Renée Marino
BOTTOM LINE Clint Eastwood's version of the buoyant Broadway musical doesn't hit the same high notes, but it's a must-see for fans of Valli and the early pop era.
FOUR SEASONS SONGS INSPIRE THESE 4 FILMS
"Jersey Boys" isn't the first big-screen moment for the Four Seasons -- perhaps you've forgotten their rendition of "Dawn" in the 1965 musical wipeout "Beach Ball." Though the group's film career never took off, their name and songs have been the inspiration for some inspired -- and insipid -- movies.
SHERRYBABY (2006) -- Critics praised Maggie Gyllenhaal's performance as a drug addict trying to mend her self-destructive ways and her relationship with her young daughter.
BIG GIRLS DON'T CRY . . . THEY GET EVEN (1992) -- Fed up with her dysfunctional family, a teenager (Hillary Wolf) runs away. It takes her 90 minutes to figure out they're no worse than everyone else's family. The movie was co-written by Mark Goddard of TV's "Lost in Space," but that didn't make it out of this world.
WALK LIKE A MAN (1987) -- Howie Mandel starred in this dog as a bozo named Bobo, who was raised by wolves as a child and then reunited with his human family as an adult.
THE FOUR SEASONS (1981) -- It's no day at the beach for three middle-age couples, including Carol Burnett and writer-director Alan Alda, who vacation together in spring, summer, fall and, finally, winter -- though not late December back in '63.
-- Daniel Bubbeo