Since so many people have seen “Jersey Boys” on Broadway, let me state at the outset that the movie is a completely different experience. Whereas the stage version placed those great Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons songs front and center, with the story of the group’s ups and downs as a device to give some space between the tunes, the movie takes the opposite approach.
And it does it with a little help from our friends in Queens.
“Jersey Boys” opens with 17-year-old Frankie Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) working as a barber’s apprentice in Belleville, NJ, a rough and tumble suburb of Newark. One of the shop’s best customers is Gyp De Carlo (Christopher Walken), a local crime boss, who takes a liking to young Frankie and is very impressed with his vocal talents. He can’t help but tear up when Frankie sings “My Mother’s Eyes” while giving him a shave.
One of Frankie’s buddies is Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), who is a petty criminal and errand boy for Gyp. On the positive side, Tommy is a pretty good guitarist who enjoys playing gigs with his buddy, fellow guitarist Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), who also runs afoul of the law. The two of them seem to take turns doing stretches of time at Rahway State Prison.
It is Tommy who is rock certain that Frankie will be a star and asks him to join his band. Frankie accepts and shortly after adopts the stage surname Valli. After years of struggling, the guys hit it big when they ask Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who lives in a more upscale part of New Jersey and is more worldly than the other guys, to join what will soon be called the Four Seasons.
Gaudio is not only a terrific keyboardist but an extremely talented composer who wrote such signature Four Seasons tunes as “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” “Dawn” and “Walk Like a Man,” among countless others.
As is often the case when a struggling band composed of friends finally achieves success, the real problems then come to the surface. The extroverted Tommy is foolishly allowed to control the finances. The Four Seasons are arrested in Cleveland because Tommy did not pay the hotel bill the prior year. Even worse, the guys discover just before a 1966 appearance on “The Ed Sullivan Show” that Tommy is in deep hock to a gambling syndicate. With the assistance of kindly Gyp and Frankie’s generous vow to pay his high six-figure debt, the group is able to continue, albeit without Tommy.
Frankie’s personal life is in upheaval as well as his wife, Mary (Renee Marino), berates him for being an absentee father (playing 200 dates a year on the road will cause that) while his daughter, Francine, starts hanging out with the wrong crowd — which will lead to tragic consequences.
Clint Eastwood, obviously, is well-known as an actor, but he is widely respected as a director as well because he never lets scenes dawdle. He also makes sure that we get to appreciate the different personalities of the group, from the brash Tommy to the man of few words Nick (who is responsible for those fun deep-bass vocals on the Seasons’ hits), to preppy Bob to the easygoing and eager-to-please Frankie.
Young starred as Valli in the original Broadway production, and he can still hit those high falsettos. Although he would be the obvious choice to be the center of attention, and he does a fine job in the film, “Jersey Boys” belongs to Piazza, who captures our attention as the funny and philosophical bad boy of the film, Tommy.
“There were only three ways to get out of our neighborhood: Join the mob, join the Army or get famous. We got two out of three!” he says early in the movie, and at the end of it he adds, “People remember the past the way they need to!”
The film may be called “Jersey Boys” but there were a lot of Queens guys involved in its production. Screenwriter Rick Elice grew up in Fresh Meadows and attended PS 173, JHS 216 and Francis Lewis High School.
“I knew I wanted to be in the film business because I loved going to the Century and the Utopia movie theaters growing up,” he told me at a press junket for the film.
Piazza, who got his big break playing Lucky Luciano on HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire,” is from Maspeth and is a graduate of Archbishop Molloy High School.
“I knew some characters from my neighborhood and Molloy, but there was no one who reminded me of Tommy,” he said with a laugh.
Walken grew up in Astoria but did not attend the junket. Ironically, he plays De Carlo as a mild-mannered and reasonable man instead of as a hot-tempered mobster — which goes against how one might think Walken would portray a wiseguy.
Just about the only flaw in “Jersey Boys” is a plot anachronism that has Valli singing “My Eyes Adored You” to his young daughter when in fact the tune wasn’t written until a decade later.
“Jersey Boys” is solid entertainment that shouldn’t disappoint anyone.