By Joan Ellis
If you love the feeling of being won over slowly as a movie goes along, try “Jersey Boys.”
You’ll need patience, a lot of it, because these guys aren’t particularly appealing. They are street kids from the Italian-American community in Belleville, N.J., who grew up without the benefit of influences from a wider world that might have made them more interesting. They have no footsteps to follow. One says that joining the Army or the mob is the only way out of the neighborhood of street crime and bar life.
In 1951, Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) is spending his teenage evenings learning theft under the guidance of Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), whose frequent arrests attest to his mediocre skill at the trade. When big-time mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, a perfect mob boss) takes him on, Frankie learns the code of the neighborhood: A New Jersey contract is a handshake. When you give your word, you keep it, no lawyers needed.
The early scenes show the tough, swaggering Tony as he assembles the group that will evolve into The Four Seasons. Three tough guys plus newly arrived songwriter/singer Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) are immersed in the arguments and jealousies that almost sink them at the starting line. Bob is the one who fuels their musical pipeline with the songs that propel the group to the top of the charts in the ‘60s. Tough guy Tommy’s fragile ego is at great risk to Bob’s detailed knowledge of money and business. Worse, Bob is an outsider.
Despite the infighting, The Four Seasons has found their name and their first big song. We watch the group rise to a grand soundtrack of their hits and understand along the way that 200 nights a year on the road destroy normal family life. For these boys, home is a problem.
If you need patience to get through the group squabbles and domestic sadness, just sink into the reality of their music and their rise. By the time you watch the original four as they reunite for their induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, you may very well be moved by their talent and their sound. A long, bumpy road led to that moment.
By then, director Clint Eastwood, with his characteristic insistence on keeping the lid on overacting, has delivered the strength of a gritty true story from an American subculture. There is always particularly great power in a story that would seem unlikely or even impossible if it were fictional.
All the actors, notably John Lloyd Young as Frankie, create memorable characters. Near the end, at the induction ceremony, Frankie says quietly, “The first time we made that sound, that was the best.” The fact that we feel his emotion so deeply is a salute to cast and director.
And by the way, watch carefully for a passing TV flash of Clint Eastwood as Rowdy Yates in “Rawhide,” circa 1960.