By Bill Dudley/CBS Radio LA
The surprisingly sordid story of the pop singing group ‘The Four Seasons’ has been tearing it up on (and off) Broadway for years. None other than Clint Eastwood tackled the very challenging directing chores for turning this hugely successful stage production into a film. Clint’s son Kyle, now a Jazz musician and living in France, helped with the score. The prime cuts for the film are of course the songs made famous by songwriters Bob Gaudio (keyboardist), and Bob Crew (producer). They had three number one songs in less than a year, “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” (title taken from a line in the Kirk Douglas film ‘Ace In The Hole’), and “Walk Like A Man.”
The Four Seasons were an interesting blend of Rock and Doo-Wop, always seeming somewhat like a throwback even during their peak years in the mid 1960s. Most of the band grew up near Newark, New Jersey, in a lower middle class working, (yet crime ridden) neighborhood. At one point we see all four members actually in jail, after appearing on “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
A strong mob influence overshadowed their early years. Christopher Walken seemed to relish his role as the heavy (Angelo De Carlo) that influenced the fledgling stages of the group, especially Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), and Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) whose piercing falsetto was a big hit with Walken’s character. Although the costumes, settings, cars, neon, and street scenes were letter perfect as expected in a Clint Eastwood film, I did notice several small inaccuracies, and all of them in the first 20 minutes. References made to Steve McQueen’s first film ‘The Blob’, (made in 1958) popped up in a 1951 scene, as did two songs that were hits much later in real life, “Silhouettes,” and “Sunday Kinda Love.” I’m thinking Clint did this so the very young Frankie could show his early vocal skills. However, references to Topo Gigio, that annoying mouse (sock), that appeared on “The Ed Sullivan Show” were about 15 years ahead of time, as that little puppet annoyed Ed’s audiences from about 1964-1971.
No sensitive moment in The Four Seasons’ career is ignored, from Tommy’s embezzling, gambling, and lack of interest in the group he originally formed, to the death of Frankie Valli’s teenage daughter, and the innocence of songwriter Bob Gaudio, who could cut a business deal at 17, but had never had a date. The Four Seasons were an early inductee into ‘The Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame’ in 1990. Unbelievably, they all performed together that night, for the first time in 25 years. More disgruntled groups that dislike each other should take note, because these guys really had problems. The loyalty of the ‘Jersey Boys’ to themselves and others from the old neighborhood is the strongest and most positive theme of the film, other than the timeless music.
Overlooking the early continuity issues, Eastwood did a great job of documenting the long and stressful career of this classic group. You get the personal perspective of each character, as each speaks straight to the camera at several integral parts of their history.
Rather than grabbing a big star like James Franco for the lead, he snagged most of the original Broadway cast. John Lloyd Young won a Tony Award for playing Frankie Valli on Broadway, and it shows. Michael Lomenda captures the talent, and also the common sense flaws of of bassman Nick Massi. Vincent Piazza,no stranger to playing gangsters as he was a regular on ‘Boardwalk Empire’, was excellent as Tommy. My favorite performance was Erich Bergen as Bob Gaudio, easily the most straight up and influential member of the band, other than Frankie.
All members of The Four Seasons are still alive, (except Nick Massi), and Frankie Valli is today still performing the Bob Gaudio songs that made him famous. Their flamboyant and talented producer Bob Crewe, the first man to really recognize their talent is also still with us. ‘Jersey Boys’ opens this weekend.