Blu-ray Review: Jersey Boys (2014)

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Midway through the performance of their first number one song, the members of The Four Seasons led by the angelic voiced Frankie Valli (played by John Lloyd Young in his Tony award-winning role) momentarily stop singing to break through cinema’s fourth wall to address the camera — and by extension the viewer — directly.

It's an innovative if admittedly stagy technique that's often employed on the Netflix series House of Cards to mixed results. However in the hands of Jersey Boys director Clint Eastwood, it livens up the otherwise over-rehearsed feel of the film adaptation of the long-running biographical Broadway show with a rock 'n roll version of a Shakespearean soliloquy.

Narrative experimentation is so effective here that — when you consider the fact that Boys centers on the dueling memories of four very different bandmates — it’s a shame that changes in point-of-view weren’t used much more often to better connect us with the characters and conflicts, especially given Jersey’s fluid relationship with time.

Likewise, the perceived spontaneity that occurs when the Boys temporarily break free from Jersey's regimented stage show choreography helps transports us away from the production’s overt performance pieces by supplanting it with the same street corner improvisation that initially inspired the sound of the Seasons from the start.

Although fortunately it's far more successful than early critical reaction would lead you to believe, Jersey kicks things off on an uneven footing while embarking on the same uphill battle that all musicals do when trying to be more than just gorgeously filmed versions of preexisting shows.

And given that Jersey is a global success eight years running, Eastwood and company certainly had their work cut out for them while attempting to make something not only old but also very familiar seem new again.

Immediately identifiable, Boys is filled with the infectious soundtrack of the a capella doo wop meets early rock and roll magical musical blend that the Boys made their own in their goal to be New Jersey's greatest cultural export since Frank Sinatra.

And while it’s sure to make you leave singing “Sherry,” the film chronicles the humble beginnings of neighborhood tough Tommy DeVito (a terrific Vincent Piazza), who looks after the golden voiced young Valli as a favor to the local mobster Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) who loves listening to him perform the Italian classics cherished by his mother.

Explaining that the only way out of their perceived deadend life was through the military, the mob, or fame, the guys aim for and eventually achieve the latter two when in the 1950s, bowling pinsetter (and future Oscar winner) Joe Pesci put them in contact with up-and-coming "Short Shorts" songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen).

With homebody Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) rounding out the group, the guys do the rounds singing backup on a number of records until Gaudio locks himself in his room out of desperation before reemerging days later with the quartet’s first hit, "Sherry."

While it's missing the razzle dazzle of Chicago and Dreamgirls, Jersey aims for the same realism of Walk the Line and Rent, unfortunately not realizing that what we want more than just toe-tapping tunes and a few edgy and/or funny anecdotes is to be genuinely drawn into the journey undertaken by these Boys.

And by not letting us get to know the guys on a deeper level than just their harmonious swagger, Eastwood's film misses the invaluable emotional connection needed to hook us into the Jersey world truly inhabited by The Four Seasons.

While the film does strike a chord when it hits reset midway through and breaks up the band — causing the Seasons to scatter in a million directions — Jersey doesn't sustain our interest for long.

Speeding through the toll their ‘60s success and subsequent failure took on the men's professional and personal lives, Jersey Boys instead fixates on trying to fit the broken puzzle pieces of The Four back together by the end of the film for a rousing closing credits number worthy of a Broadway curtain call.

Had those working behind-the-scenes (including the film's two editors as well as the stage musical authors turned scripters Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice) broken up the chronology or shifted focus to give us the same sequence from the perspective of another source, Jersey might not have had to work so hard to make try and elicit the response it desired during the film's dramatic highs and lows.

For example, in what should have been an impactful life-altering event late into the picture (regarding one of Valli's loved ones), the payoff comes off as predictable and cliched rather than appropriately heartbreaking given that we barely knew the character in question until they were re-introduced onscreen just to tug at our heartstrings as if on cue.

Desperately in need of the cinematic equivalent of a stroll on the boardwalk to give the claustrophobically insulated, stagy film some much-needed fresh air, Jersey remains a likable, good-natured piece of Broadway movie musical nostalgia nonetheless. And thankfully, a few of its flaws are smoothed over by clever decision to combine the group’s sing-along worthy hits with some boldly postmodernist touches.

An above average achievement for anyone else given that the acting and the ambiance elevates it from its by-the-numbers paradigm, while it undoubtedly would've impressed us much more if made by a relative newcomer, Eastwood's reputation precedes him in this case in making the result a double-edged sword for the filmmaker.

Though it doesn't hold up next to some of his most extraordinary achievements from the haunting chamber piece Million Dollar Baby to the symphonic brilliance of Letters From Iwo Jima, Jersey Boys still warms us with the comfort food like rhythms of a pop song built on the same foundation that's swayed us thousands of times before.

However, while we're able to sing along with the guys from the first chorus, we just wish the rest of the work could’ve been as catchy as the playful hook that surprised us early on and broke up the narrative for a glorious beat or two before it continued on in familiar 4x4 time.

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