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  WINDY CITY TIMES

Knight at the Movies: Jersey Boys; film notes
by Richard Knight, Jr., for Windy City Times
2014-06-25

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About an hour into Clint Eastwood's adaptation of the jukebox musical sensation Jersey Boys, the introduction of a gay character into the showbiz story of The Four Seasons changes this quasi-musical into a full-blown one. At last, the real emphasis is on the music—the songs, performances, the recordings; the process that helped elevate this early 1960s singing quartet into legendary status. Okay, so the character—Bob Crewe ( essayed by Mike Doyle ), the quartet's producer and sometimes lyricist who refined their sound and brought them to the top of the charts with songs like "Sherry," "Walk Like a Man," and "Big Girls Don't Cry"—is portrayed as an over-the-top stereotype ( complete with limp wrist, mincing moves and derogatory cracks likening him to Liberace ). Stereotypes aside, the Bob Crewe character also finally brings to the movie something that was apparently a hallmark of the Broadway musical it's based on and has been missing here: pizazz.

Up until that point, the story—as laid out in Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice's script ( who also did the book for the Broadway musical )—focuses on the close ties of the group with some rather unsavory underworld types not unfamiliar to fans of The Sopranos and The Godfather. ( The movie is like Goodfellas with songs thrown in for the hell of it. ) Everyone claims to have a fascination with the "angelic" falsetto vocal stylings of lead singer Frankie Valli ( John Lloyd Young, who played the role onstage ), but we learn nothing about where Valli's talent sprang from, how he came to sing in said falsetto and whether he was razzed for sounding like a girl ( something he surely had to overcome ). Most importantly, we have not heard a vocal from Young that is worthy of all the praise. ( the decision to perform the songs live is one of the film's major missteps. )

Nor do we see much passion for music beyond the standard biopic trappings by Valli and his cohorts, easily the world's oldest cinematic teenagers ( Stockard Channing in Grease aside ) when first glimpsed in 1951 slogging away in the showbiz trenches. Instead, Eastwood emphasizes those mob ties and the differences between Valli—he with an apparent innocence to be protected at all costs—and his wised-up pal with the wiseguy connections, Tommy DeVito ( Boardwalk Empire's Vincent Piazza ). The most prominent connection is Gyp DeCarlo ( a very funny Christopher Walken, the local mob boss ).

Fellow goombah Nick Massi ( Michael Lomeda ), the group's bass vocalist, is of zero interest. Although the arrival of the nerdish Bob Gaudio ( Erich Bergen ), who writes the hit melodies that finally elevate the group from their round of Jersey one nighters to the big time, is fun with his fish-out-of-water elements, it's really not until the aforementioned gay, gay, gay Bob Crewe enters the picture that the dry, longwinded and completely wrongheaded movie finally ramps up a bit—but only for a bit.

The slack pacing ( matched by the dishwater brown and muted purples of the cinematography—the antithesis of what a musical like this one needs ) is then replaced by a series of increasingly melodramatic, disconnected scenes ( slices of Valli's fractious personal life that are presented with little or no subtext ), culminating in the group's disintegration, which is hastened by the revelation that Tommy's put the group's finances at risk, with "the boys" wanting their dough, or else. After years of working off the debt Valli's comeback hit, his solo recording of "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" ( whose lyrics were reportedly penned as a tribute to Crewe's boyfriend ) becomes the movie's 11 o'clock number ( perhaps the only song in the history of movie musicals where the horn section upstages the vocals ).

During the film's coda—set in 1990, when the group is inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame—when Frankie avers that it was "all about the music" you think, "Gee, I'd like to have seen that movie cause this one sure wasn't." Then we proceed to an end-credit montage with the entire cast, in true Broadway fashion, beltin' out a batch of Four Seasons hits that finally is all about the music. Ironically, as the credits are rolling, Eastwood finally deigns to elevate the music and the energy to a level that the preceding 137 minutes could have desperately used.

While Jersey Boys isn't exactly a must-see movie for showtune queens like myself ( and now I don't feel so bad missing the stage version ), there are a lot of other queer-tinged movie musicals out there to get one in the mood for Pride. A few suggestions would include Hedwig and the Angry Inch, The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Mamma Mia! As for some great backstage '60s-set musicals, look no further than Dreamgirls, Hairspray, Ray and, yes, even Kevin Spacey's labor of love, his Bobby Darin biopic Beyond the Sea that, in retrospect, is a much better movie than Jersey Boys.

Film notes:

—Renowned actor Kevin Kline—Oscar winner for his hilarious performance in A Fish Called Wanda, star of the gay-themed comedy In & Out and the featured actor as legendary gay composer Cole Porter in De-Lovely, among dozens of other film roles ( Dave, Sophie's Choice, Soapdish, Grand Canyon, Cry Freedom among them )—is being honored with a career achievement award from the Chicago International Film Festival ( CIFF ) at its summer gala on Saturday, June 28, at the Four Seasons Hotel, 120 E. Delaware Pl. The lavish evening, a fundraiser for CIFF that is celebrating its 50th year, begins at 6 p.m. with red-carpet arrivals and will include an in-depth, clip-laden discussion with Kline about his storied career. www.chicagofilmfestival.com

—The group Pride Films and Plays ( PFP ) is presenting the third annual Queer Bits Film Festival Monday, June 30, at the Pub Theatre, 3914 N. Clark St., with doors at 6:30 p.m. and screenings at 7:30 p.m.. The fest includes eight shorts and three episodes of locally produced Web series—all receiving their Chicago premieres.

David Zak, executive director of the organization, describes the line-up as including everything from "a sexy comedy about two straight actors stripping down to rehearse a gay love scene, a touching and truthful story of a father and son trying to reconnect in the wake of a traumatic experience, a light-hearted documentary about a lesbian couple trying their hand at filmmaking, and a powerful and action-packed drama about two young men fighting for love in an institution waging war on homosexuality." PFP ensemble member Tom Chiola is featured in one of the films in the line-up, A Heart Felt. www.pridefilmsandplays.com


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