As an old rock and roller who first listened to music on a small AM radio many years ago, it’s a pleasure for me to see rock and roll groups like the Four Seasons now in the Hollywood and Broadway spotlight.
“Jersey Boys,” first a 2006 Tony award-winning smash Broadway musical, and now a bio pic with music, directed by Clint Eastwood, is the story of the Four Seasons (1960–1966), falsetto singer Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), four tough white kids from blue collar New Jersey who created a new harmonic sound that some have called “white Doo Wop.”
The theatrical version of “Jersey Boys” consisted of four unknown singers/actors on a bare two-story stage set and was a bit more like a revue or concert than a well-made play. Each member of the group “broke the fourth wall” and told the audience his version of the foursome’s history, interspersed with all their familiar hits in the order they were written, “Sherry,” “Dawn,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” and “Can’t take My Eyes Off You,” among others.
In trying to delve deeper into the personal history of the performers, the movie actually drags a bit in between songs. Lacking is the dramatic staging and lighting of the musical. The actors still speak to the audience, but it works less well than in the stage version. Yet, the film has top production values, faithful period costumes, gorgeous cars, realistic sets and great sound. The visual recreation of the 1950s-1960s is integral to the appeal of the film.
Whereas the play darkly hinted at the group’s New Jersey mafia connections, the film hits you over the head with it (no pun intended). Too large a role is given in the movie to Gyp, the kingpin acted by Christopher Walken, who seems a bit wooden.
The history of the Four Seasons is dramatic and one with which I had been unfamiliar. They appeared on the music scene when African American style rock and roll was spreading among teenagers across the country. Big money could be made if the sound was moderated from street corner doo wop and rock and roll to a pop sound that could appeal to a mass white audience. The Four Seasons had to grow beyond their rough Jersey background in order to become pop singers who looked good on TV.
In “Jersey Boys” we watch not only the rise of rock and roll stars, but we also watch kids grow up. We see their modest beginnings, their rise to fame; we watch them cope with success; we witness their personal demons. Interestingly, none of the singers evolves much as individuals over the course of his career. Their basic personalities and all their insecurities, flaws and failings do not change; they simply get older.
Neither the musical nor the film audience is old enough to have been original fans of the Four Seasons. So why are the lives of old rock and roll performers being resurrected now? For example, the Broadway musical, “Beautiful: The Carole King Musical” covers roughly the same time period as “The Jersey Boys.” And a new film about James Brown is about to be released.
It’s not just the music, although that may be a good enough reason. And it can’t just be to capitalize on the nostalgia effect, since the original rock and rollers are too old now to be the target audience. No, it’s that these life stories have universal appeal. They are inspirational tales of unlikely climbs to success with all its heady glamour. But also, they are tales of friendship and betrayal, the tragedy of young talent gone astray, and the pain of love and loss. There is nothing subtle, sophisticated or new about “Jersey Boys,” but there is heart.