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Clint Eastwood’s Jersey Boys Is a Funny Mix of Formulaic and Fresh

There’s a moment in Clint Eastwood’s breezy film of the Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons “jukebox musical” Jersey Boys that throws a spotlight — or, more precisely, a streetlight — on what’s missing. It’s in the final scene, in 1990, at the group’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction. Frankie (John Lloyd Young, repeating his Tony-winning Broadway turn) tells us (he talks to the camera) that nothing in his life compares to the moment that he and his pals found their sound “under a Jersey streetlight.” It’s a lovely image … except it’s not in the movie, where there’s no special streetlight and the sound just kind of happens. Surprisingly, for a musician, Eastwood doesn’t seem interested in where the Four Seasons’ sound came from, in the Italian appropriation of African-American doo-wop, in the origin or unique quality of Valli’s exhilarating falsetto. You expect a movie — unlike a Broadway show — to give you a little background, context, peripheral hubbub. But if the show didn’t show it, Eastwood doesn’t either. Narrative chasms, one-note characters, showbiz clichés don’t seem to bother him. As long as he can bring the movie in ahead of time and under budget, it’s all good.

To be fair, some of it is good, very good. Jersey Boys has an easy, likable gait. It’s Eastwood’s most fluid film: He gets the swing of the music without fancy editing. Like many “old masters” (among them Roman Polanski in the new Venus in Fur), he’s mapping out the intersection between theater and cinema. He doesn’t want a periphery: Graceful self-containment is all. But is it enough for us?

The original musical is in four parts, each narrated by a member of the group, each slant different (though not Rashomon different). For the film (written by the stage show’s Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice), Eastwood retains the narration but he doesn’t underline the shifts in perspective — it all seems random. The first narrator has the strongest voice: Vincent Piazza’s guitarist Tommy DeVito, the wiseass gofer for a mob boss called Gyp (the ever-marvelous Christopher Walken) and the one who takes credit for discovering Frankie Valli (born Francesco Castelluccio). He says that in his neighborhood (Newark), you had three choices: Join a gang and get killed, not join a gang and get killed, or pull a Sinatra. He wants to be Sinatra — or at least to the right or left of Sinatra.

Young has played Frankie a zillion times onstage in the last decade, but it still seems miraculous when that otherworldly sound comes out of that handsome, baby-bland face. I wish the script made a distinction, though, between a great voice and a great weird voice. In an early scene, Frankie does a number with Tommy’s first group and, after a few notes of his piercing soprano, a pretty girl at a front table whispers in amazement to her companion. I expected her to be saying, “He sounds like a duck,” but no, it’s more like, “He’s so amazing! I’m so attracted to him.” Well, some people found castrati sexy. And Justin Timberlake.

The accepted story of Valli’s voice and its peculiar development is this: In 1962, in Point Pleasant, New Jersey, the group ran out of songs but the audience wanted more. Producer Bob Crewe told the New York Times: “Frankie picks up some maracas and does a great imitation of 1940's singer Rose Murphy in a falsetto. It was so clear, so crisp.” The article (by Mark Rotella) goes on: “That night [group member and composer Bob] Gaudio went home and wrote a song with that falsetto still ringing in his ears. ‘Sherry’ took all of 15 minutes to write. It surged onto the charts, and hit No. 1.”

In Jersey Boys, Gaudio (Erich Bergen) writes the song on a bus for no particular reason, and he and the others promptly sing it on the phone for their aggressively queeny producer, Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle). Two stanzas in, Crewe calls to his engineer to set up the 8-track recorder: “We’re gonna double Frankie’s voice! It’s gonna explode off the radio!” I like the Point Pleasant story better. The thing about Valli’s voice is that it could go from a silken soprano to a falsetto screeeech — and stay absolutely in tune. Try singing “Ragdoll” sometime and try to find that point where the rasp, as it were, hits the road.

Erich Bergen plays Gaudio, the only member raised in a more affluent milieu and the one who puts the bug in Valli’s ear that the two of them should split off from the group. (They did, profitably, but the name the Four Seasons never lost its luster.) Michael Lomenda is Nick Massi, the one who plays his cards close to the vest but lets loose with a show-stopping aria of complaint in his last big scene. They’re good actors — broad, but this isn’t subtle material. Young’s Frankie grows in stature and looks more and more like Al Pacino at the end of The Godfather — coldly magnetic but with a stubborn loyalty to the group, in this case Tommy and his massive gambling debts. Female characters? There’s Valli’s wife, who has a good, tart first scene (before she marries him) and then turns into a drunken hellion; a daughter who suffers from his constant absence; and a journalist girlfriend who looks pretty. The parts are a disgrace, but then, women have no role in this particular rags-to-riches myth. You can sing like a girl but you should always walk like a man.

The palette of Jersey Boys is unnecessarily monochromatic (brown and white), but Eastwood’s casual touch keeps it from seeming too self-consciously “classical.” And he has a wild card in Walken, who makes you laugh by keeping to the meter but putting accents on the oddest syllables. (Oh, to see him play Shakespeare again!)  The film is a funny mix of formulaic and fresh. The numbers are too polished — there’s no sense of discovery. But the songs and their harmonies are evergreen. Walking out a theater with those tunes in your head, you might even think you saw a good movie.

Photo: Keith Bernstein/Warner Bros.