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Jersey Boys’ makes a vibrant stage musical into a rote biopic

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From left, Piazza, Bergen, Young and Lomenda make sweet music.

Three stars

Jersey Boys John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Rated R. Opens Friday.

The reason Jersey Boys has been made into a high-profile Hollywood movie is not because Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons have an inherently more compelling music-business success story than other artists, but because the group’s somewhat run-of-the-mill tale was turned into an energetic and entertaining stage musical that has been running in various locations (including Las Vegas) for nearly a decade now. So the most disappointing thing about director Clint Eastwood’s movie version of Jersey Boys is that he essentially performs the opposite feat that the producers of the stage version pulled off: He takes the stylized, larger-than-life version of the story and turns it back into something mundane, making an infectious stage musical into just another showbiz biopic.

At least it’s a perfectly solid showbiz biopic. Along the lines of Ray or Walk the Line, Jersey Boys tells a familiar rise-and-fall story about musicians from poor backgrounds who made it big but couldn’t escape their demons. It starts in the 1950s with working-class New Jersey guys Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), who spend as much time committing petty crimes as they do playing music. But thanks to Frankie’s amazing voice, they’ve got a shot at musical stardom, especially when they add a shy young songwriter named Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen) to their group.

What follows is fairly predictable, as the group rises to stardom thanks to Frankie’s singing and Bob’s songs, only to fracture as Frankie and Bob start to overshadow the other members, and Tommy gets in deep with his connections to organized crime (embodied by a very entertaining Christopher Walken as an avuncular local crime boss). As a director, Eastwood is known for his low-key style, and as usual he mostly steps back and lets the script do the talking. The problem is that talking is mainly what the script by Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice (who also wrote the stage version) does; it takes an hour before the movie gets to anything resembling a big production number, and even that is limited to a choreographed performance on American Bandstand.

Aside from an inspired shot that passes various musical performers as it ascends the Brill Building, Eastwood’s visual style is simple and even drab, and his naturalistic approach makes the script’s broad strokes stand out as cheesy and awkward. Three of the four main stars appeared in various productions of the stage show, and their singing of the classic Four Seasons songs is consistently impressive. But it’s only during the closing credits that Eastwood allows them to show their true Broadway chops, finally breaking with realism for a musical number that’s playful and expressive. Too bad that by that point, the movie’s already over.

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