The story of musical group Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and the Four Seasons, as we see them graduate from young 1950s New Jersey hoodlums to 1960s hit-makers. We also witness band member Tommy De Vito’s (Vincent Piazza) continued hoodlum ways and money problems threatening to derail the band, and the troubled home life of Valli (struggling to play husband and father whilst constantly on the road or in the studio). Other band members are played by Michael Lomeda and Erich Bergen (the latter playing the chief songwriter and keyboardist), whilst Renee Marino is Frankie’s frankly wholly unsuitable wife, Christopher Walken plays a local mob boss who helps the boys out from time to time throughout their lives. Joey Russo pops up as future actor Joe Pesci, who played a pretty big part in the band’s history.
Who would’ve imagined one day that Clint Eastwood would direct the film version of a stage musical? Well, the versatile director (“White Hunter, Black Heart”, “Million Dollar Baby”, “Unforgiven”, “Play Misty for Me”, “Gran Torino”) has indeed given us this sturdy, if not especially challenging 2014 film about Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Then again, he did previously direct the Charlie Parker biopic “Bird”, but that was a jazz guy and everyone knows Clint loves that genre. This is a biopic covering a very different musical genre. You could even argue that Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons were a ‘boy band’, albeit with actual talent and better songs. There’s nothing much different here from most other musical biopics, but what small differences the story does have, make the film worthwhile. Basically, it plays like “Goodfellas: The Musical” at times (right down to a character named Tommy DeVito and Joe Pesci himself being a part of the real-life story here. Amazing, but true!), and the thuggish background of the main characters helps give the film a bit of needed grit. It’s just a shame that the guy playing Pesci looks and sounds absolutely nothing like him, but still, you can’t make this stuff up, folks. Real-life is truly weird sometimes. Watching the film I was quite surprised at how shady Valli’s journey was. For some reason I had just assumed he was squeaky clean, but he and his buddies were quite the young hoodlums, not Pat Boone-types at all. I’m not sure how pervasive the F-word was during this time, but I’m not gonna argue with Clint Fuckin’ Eastwood if he tells me that these guys swore a lot. 80+ years old, but he still scares the crap out of me, OK?
John Lloyd Young probably gets a little too squeal-y with the falsetto as Valli, but for the most part does a damn good job vocally. For cryin’ out loud, the music was recorded live, so let’s give the guy some respect for coming relatively close. Young won a Tony for playing the part on Broadway, but in terms of acting, I actually think he gets blown away by co-star Vincent Piazza. In fact, Young is just OK in the lead (despite looking more like Eugene Levy than Frankie Valli), and the weakest of the four principal actors. I know I’ve made this mistake before, but if Piazza doesn’t become a star, I’ll be shocked. Interestingly, he’s the one guy out of the principal group who hasn’t already appeared in a stage version of this story. But I’m telling you, whatever ‘it’ is, Piazza has ‘it’. He plays the roughest of the Jersey boys, and has a brooding intensity and charisma to him that renders everyone else pretty much invisible. What Piazza has can’t be taught, and it’s amazing that the one guy with the least experience with this story is the one to come out on top in my eyes. The other acting standout here is much less surprising, Christopher Walken. Playing a somewhat genial local mobster known to the boys, he’s still damn intimidating and steals his every scene as is his wont. C’mon, it’s Christopher Walken in a Clint Eastwood movie, what’s not to love? He gets the film’s funniest line during a tense scene involving Tommy’s monetary issues spiralling out of control. I won’t spoil it, you need to hear it for yourself, but it’s hilarious. I’m surprised, though, that he didn’t think Valli and the Four Seasons needed more cowbell. I think that was an oversight.
The film is good-looking, so long as you can take Eastwood’s trademark low-level lighting via cinematographer Tom Stern (“Million Dollar Baby”, “Flags of Our Fathers”). It’s a very brown/grey-looking film, almost B&W, but for me it suits the era and the material. I also actually appreciated the film’s to-camera narrative device (retained from the musical), I found it as charming as the four-letter words and violence. Scripted by the writers of the musical, Marshall Brickman (“Annie Hall”, “Manhattan”) and Rick Elice, I was less enamoured with the annoying choppiness of the structure overall and with Eastwood once again taking cheap pot-shots at gays. After making the rather more complex “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” and after hearing that he believes it’s no one’s business if gays want to get married or not (rather surprising to hear from the guy who made “The Eiger Sanction”), I was just a bit disappointed with the way Eastwood has portrayed one rather prominent gay character in this film as being swishy, decadent and untrustworthy. Having said that, perhaps this is more indicative of the musical, rather than any prejudice on Eastwood’s part. Also, the character becomes softened somewhat after a while anyway.
One of the best things about the film is that despite being based on a stage musical…it’s not actually a musical. It’s a biopic about musicians that contains some songs. That’s good for someone like me who generally hates musicals. The funny thing is, I watched this film with the impression that I wasn’t a fan of Frankie Valli. I love 50s and 60s music, but the only Valli song I could recall at the time was ‘Oh What a Night’ which I hate with a passion. Then as the movie progressed, time after time I found myself realising that I knew all of these songs and really loved most of them. ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’, ‘My Eyes Adored You’, and ‘Walk Like a Man’ are bonafide classics that I assumed someone else sang. ‘Sherry’ is another good song on show here, it’s hard not to like that one. So I guess you could say that the one thing I learnt overall here, though, was that I actually do like Frankie Valli’s music, something I really didn’t think was true going in. Well…let’s qualify that a bit. I’d like to say ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off You’ was a favourite, but hearing it so often in movies (“The Deer Hunter” and “Forrest Gump” immediately spring to mind) has rendered that thing a fucking earworm for me. It’s a good song, I just never want to hear it again. EVER. I still hate ‘Oh What a Night’, too (And it shouldn’t even be here given it came from the re-formed group, sans Valli!). Having said that, the song and dance set piece involving that song over the end credits made my heart feel glad. It’s just so…nice, despite the song (And you can bet it’s the one reason Walken signed on to do the film, so he could get out there and dance). I’m not kidding, that song needs to die already. Hate it. I also have to mention once again, good songs or not, Valli’s voice (or Young’s occasionally shriek-y interpretation of it) is almost too much to bear after a while.
A solid, if standard biopic, it’s good for what it wants to be. The grittiness here is the chief asset, and that is more a credit to the story than Clint Eastwood’s direction. Vincent Piazza is one to watch in the future.