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‘Jersey Boys’ movie more cliché than entertainment

By Gary Clift

Director Clint Eastwood’s movie version of the popular musical “Jersey Boys” is not, it turns out, a complete fiasco. It has some good songs, taken from the repertoire of 1960s pop group The Four Seasons. John Lloyd Young, who plays high-voiced Frankie Valli, sings well. And Erich Bergen who plays side-man and song-writer Bob Gaudio, has an admirable turn.

Otherwise things are only vaguely interesting in this fairly long movie. It takes the form of an early 1940s celebrity bio-pic, complete with tragedy after tragedy, a little sentimentality, melodrama at every turn, and a bittersweet climax. As a whole, the movie is more cliché than entertainment.

Here’s the real story. Two talented guys grew up in Belleville New Jersey during the 1940s. Frankie Castelluccio apparently knew who Bob Crewe was, and in the late 50s or early 60s went looking for his old acquaintance, hoping for career help.

Frankie, whose stage name was by then Frankie Valli, was lead singer for a doo-wop group organized to play dance clubs. Crewe apparently had an office in the Brill Building, the New York City home of music publishing and production. He found some work for the boys as back-up singers.

The producer already had a history of success in the music business, having written “Silhouettes (on the Shade),” a frequently recorded near-standard. His pop sensibilities allowed him to direct The Four Seasons away from the used-up doo-wop genre and toward Rock and Soul. Crewe collaborated with the band’s keyboard man and fourth voice, Gaudio, to write “Sherry Baby,” which became a number one hit for the group.

The two also collaborated on “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man,” which were also number ones. Additional collaborations between the two include “Rag Doll,” “Let’s Hang On,” and “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You.” Crewe also co-wrote the late Four Seasons hit “My Eyes Adored You.”

But that wasn’t all he did. He produced Mitch Ryder and the Detroit Wheels, Leslie Gore, and Oliver (and was himself produced by K-State alum and music luminary Jerry Wexler). And he wrote “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Anymore” (made famous by the Walker Brothers), “Music to Watch Girls By” (which became Diet Pepsi’s theme song for years), and Patti Labelle’s huge hit “Lady Marmalade.”

Valli’s career, as the movie “Jersey Boys” suggests, dipped at the end of the 60s and came back in the 70s with hits including “Grease” from the movie of that musical. Eastwood, who has directed disappointments “J. Edgar,” “Invictus,” and “Hereafter” since his 2008 “Gran Torino,” undertook to make a dramatic movie of the stage musical based on Valli’s musical life.

So long as “Jersey Boys” stays in nightclubs and presents the great songs, it is sort of fun to watch. But its story, which seems to have been based loosely on history, is just another one of those stories about great talents facing unexpected reversals and family troubles.

As the movie does little to make its Frankie into a human, moviegoers may find they don’t care all that much what happens to, for example, one of his several children, a daughter, who appears in two scenes before she is sacrificed to the melodrama.

Vincent Piazza (as Tommy, the guitarist and bandleader) and Michael Lomenda (as bass playing and singing Nick) work hard to make the most of their familiar characters. Like Bergen and Young, they also get speeches directed at the audience. I’m not certain the use of these asides helped moved the story, such as it is.

Christopher Walken plays Gyp, an organized crime figure known to the boys. He likes Frankie’s voice, and so he is willing to help arrange a nonsensical agreement between Tommy and a loan shark. The film’s women are all two-dimensional, from martyred ma to drunken wife to cynical reporter.

None of that stuff is as interesting as is Crewe’s career (he was half of Disco Tex and the Sex-o-lets during the disco era). And in preference to a story about anybody in the music business, I would have preferred to see and hear performances of all of the Four Seasons’ great hits. They were historic—a sort of missing link between the transitional pop music of the 1950s and the British influenced Rock movement of the 60s and 70s. Not that you’d know that from watching Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys.”

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