Jersey Boys: Story and Sound

This is not a musical. Neither is Frankie Valli’s life.

In 1951 MGM commissioned “Singin’ in the Rain” because Arthur Freed wanted to showcase his catalogue of songs, ordering the screenwriters to strategically work his melodies into the screen classic. When Jersey Boys came out on Broadway it was a showcase of the Four Seasons’ greatest hits a la ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Boy from Oz’ with front-man Franki Valli reportedly making $500,000 a month from royalties.

Making a movie musical seemed the obvious next step, but Director Clint Eastwood did not go the typical route; opting to make a movie with music in it, rather than an actual musical. Jersey Boys follows the quartet from their childhoods in Jersey and their formation of the Four Seasons, dedicating most of the movie to their rise to fame, disintegration and personal dramas. Interspersed throughout the film are the group’s hits including ‘Sherry,’ ‘Big Girls Don’t Cry’ and ‘Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You,’ the latter being non-optional for a post ’10 Things I Hate About You’ audience. ‘Beggin’ was notably missing.

Musicals are notorious (with a few exceptions including the more sophisticated Les Miserable, The Phantom of the Opera and Fiddler on the Roof) for awkward and abrupt in-narrative transitions to musical numbers. On stage it’s hardly an issue, especially in a jukebox musical where you are usually waiting for your favourite song. In film, however, as the 2005 adaption of ‘The Producers’ showed us, it’s just uncomfortable. Eastwood skirts the issue entirely, with the exception of one token number, by having no staged performances interrupt the drama, instead choosing to showcase Valli’s hits through overlays, montages and as action through the band members either practicing, recording demos or staging performances.

This is all well and good, and it means we go a lot deeper into the history of the band, but at the expense of what is really a toe-tapping musical. I went to ‘Jersey Boys’ when it was on the West End and it’s a lot of fun to sit there with the audience and hum along and squirm around in your seat when your favourite hits come on. You really just want to get up and dance and are so happy when they finally get the audience on their feet at the end of the show. The movie, aside from a few excited murmurs in the cinema when the audience recognised the likes of ‘Walk Like a Man,’ did not feel like a musical, but a movie with a lot of songs in it. It’s about the story, not about the sound.

The cast are excellent, in particular John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, sporting a crack falsetto. Michael Lomenda gets a better turn in the movie as Nick Massi, self-described group ‘Ringo.’ In the musical he’s purely comic relief and doesn’t get to say anything longer than 3 syllables; in the movie he has more depth and is more of a driving force for the story. Christopher Walken does his Christopher Walken thing; those Fatboy Slim fans hoping to see him burst into dance will be sorely disappointed.

A musical often judges it’s success by how many soundtracks it sells. The movie will sell Frankie Valli, but not as well as the stage adaptation. I’m writing this review while I listen to my soundtrack which I bought in London after I saw the musical and I was certainly listening to it on the way home from the cinema. The musical succeeded in reigniting interest and recognition in the band amongst a younger generation. The film, despite it not being a musical, will do the same. That’s not a bad thing.