A voice like yours, it's a gift from God," Christopher Walken says in his best Hobokenese, having just heard a kid by the name of Frankie Castelluccio soar into the upper registers. In Jersey Boys, Walken is Angelo "Gyp" DeCarlo, a local mob boss - and Frankie, played with wiry intensity by John Lloyd Young, is about to change his name to Valli.
You may have heard of his little band. Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons released a buoyant slew of pop hits in the '60s and into the '70s - "Sherry," "Big Girls Don't Cry," "Walk Like a Man," "Rag Doll," and "December 1963 (Oh, What A Night)" among them.
You get to hear all the songs in Clint Eastwood's surprisingly enjoyable adaptation of the smash Tony-winning jukebox musical, Jersey Boys. Surprising because Eastwood, directing his 33d film, adds some keen-eyed realism to the showbiz schmaltz.
Sure, Frankie and his bandmates - Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) - get to break the fourth wall, taking turns talking to the camera, and to us, to give their side of the story and backstory. And sure, real-life personages and events are compacted, or conveniently forgotten.
And yes, not since Mad Men have women been treated so callously by guys in skinny suits and ties. At least on Mad Men, the female characters have inner lives. In Eastwood's take on the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice, who also wrote the book for the original stage show, the girlfriends, wives, moms, daughters, and groupies are two-dimensional, at best.
Still, there's something about the way Eastwood tells this tale: street corner toughs, not altogether unfamiliar with the interior decor of Rahway Correctional, working their way from high school hops to supper clubs to Bandstand (still out of Philly's WFIL-TV studio) and through the gilded doors of the storied Brill Building, where songwriters, publishers, and recording execs zigzagged down the halls.
The director puts his trust in Young, who originated the role on Broadway. Young cinches his face tight as he delivers an ace approximation of Valli's falsetto. He might not have the movie-star charisma of other Eastwood leads (DiCaprio, Jolie, Swank), but Young has a deep understanding of Valli the man, the myth, the trouper.
While the up-from-the-gutter success of Valli and the Four Seasons follows familiar music-biz story arcs, the group had its own, um, unique issues, many of them going back to Mr. DeCarlo and some enterprising loan sharks. For as many millions of records that they sold, and dollars made, these Jersey boys continued to struggle. Professional jealousies, personal loss . . . Tougher stuff, grittier, more tragic even than you'd expect from the guys who crooned, "I'd change her sad rags into glad rags if I could."
Or maybe not. The Four Seasons' songbook takes on a little more gravity in Eastwood's hands.
Jersey Boys *** (Out of four stars)
Directed by Clint Eastwood. With John Lloyd Young, Christopher Walken, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen. Distributed by Warner Bros.
Running time: 2 hours, 14 mins.
Parent's guide: R (profanity, violence, adult themes).
Playing at: area theaters.EndText