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Band biopic not all music to our ears

Four Seasons' story succeeds on strength of songs

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The music is infectious. The harmonies are uplifting. The voice is divine.

The story... well, that's another story.

Jersey Boys, the big-screen adaptation of the hit Broadway play that chronicles the career and musical catalogue of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons, is the kind of movie that will get stuck in your head for a while but is unlikely to be remembered years from now as a chart-topper.

Written by the stage play's original book writers, Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, and directed by Clint Eastwood, Jersey Boys succeeds at different times at creating musical joy and dramatic grit, but falters in the transitional moments that are supposed to connect the two.

And because of that, Jersey Boys feels like a movie in search of an identity, despite some committed performances from a cast that hits all the right notes.

The story follows, in mostly chronological order, the events that saved angel-voiced New Jersey teen Francesco Castellucio (played by John Lloyd Young, who earned a Tony Award when he opened in the role on Broadway in 2005) from a hardscrabble existence as an moderately skilled barber and low-level hoodlum and elevated him to the top of the pop-music charts.

The Jersey inhabited by these boys is a dressed-down, mobbed-up place from which, as small-time crook and part-time bandleader Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) says in one of the numerous at-the-camera asides that add insight to the narrative, "There are three ways to get out: join the army, join the Mob or become a star.

"For us," he adds, "it was two out of three."

As a 16-year-old whose musical gift is well known in the neighbourhood, Frankie follows wherever Tommy leads -- sometimes, it's into gigs with Tommy's struggling band, but more often, it's straight into trouble (an amusing early scene has Frankie standing lookout while Tommy and a cohort try to load a stolen, full-size safe into the trunk of a getaway car).

Through Tommy, Frankie meets local crime boss Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken, who seems to be having way too much fun in this role); the mobster is moved to tears by Frankie's singing and appoints himself Frankie's protector.

The band is headed nowhere until a wannabe promoter named Joey (Joseph Russo), who in real life would later make his own mark in showbiz as actor Joe Pesci, introduces Frankie and Tommy to musician/songwriter Bab Gaudio (Erich Bergman), an about-to-explode talent in search of a steady gig.

From there, Frankie -- who has now taken the last name Valli -- and the band head straight to the big time, on the strength of such Gaudio-penned hits as Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like a Man (all of which hit No. 1 in 1962-63).

Fame follows, but the fortune part of the Four Seasons' stardom is a bit trickier because Tommy, acting as the band's manager, squanders every dime they make and runs up a debt in the hefty six-figure range. He can only keep his bandmates in the dark for so long, and when the loan sharks come calling, the entire band is held to account.

Personalities clash. Life on the road grinds. Relationships fray. Things, as they must, eventually unravel.

At these times, Jersey Boys plays as a dark drama that's almost hard to watch. But when the music's playing -- particularly during the lengthy sequence that follows the Four Seasons' hit-fuelled ascent -- there's something approaching lightheartedness going on. There are also moments of flat-out comedy, provided mostly by Walken and Michael Lomenda as Four Seasons bassist Nick Massi, that provide relief when the band's internal strife threatens to overwhelm.

But ultimately, it's the songs, and Young's performance as Valli singing them, that make Jersey Boys a rewarding experience. That makes sense, really -- despite what Eastwood and company have set out to do with this big-screen-ification of the story, it is an adaptation of a stage musical.

The music should drive it. And it does, even if the weight of the other elements -- like a stolen safe crammed into the trunk of a four-door sedan -- keeps this version of Jersey Boys from ever getting up to full speed. Twitter: @BradOswald

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition June 20, 2014 D3

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