Jukebox musicals always run the risk of being a little cheesy and there’s more than a whiff of Quattro Formaggi about this Four Seasons musical biopic. Telling the story of the iconic pop group, it charts their rise from the Jersey projects, their run-ins with the Mob and ultimately the divisions and rivalries which tore the group apart.
The early scenes of young Frankie and Tommy getting into trouble with the law feel hammy and derivative and it’s only once a young Joe Pesci (yes that Joe Pesci played here by Joseph Russo) introduces Bob Gaudio to Tommy, Frankie and Nick does the film get going. It then skips forward at random intervals, showing their progress from nightclub acts to bona fide recording superstars until Tommy’s wayward habits begin to undermine the group’s success. Along the way, important life events are given a cursory mention and occasionally a scene or two such as Frankie’s divorce or the death of his daughter but the movie is reluctant to waste any time on exploring anything in depth, preferring to move on to the next sequence in a bullet point list style recitation of history. Disappointingly, at no point does anyone call anyone else a ‘mook’, but you can tell they were all thinking it.
The principle cast, deliberately drawn from veterans of the stage show bring their experience to bear, although some of them take a while to adapt to the more intimate style movie acting requires, particularly John Lloyd Young as Frankie Valli, whose performance puts the broad into Broadway and often feels like he’s delivering an affected impression of Valli rather than playing the man himself. Vincent Piazza as Tommy DeVito is similarly taken straight from the Italian book of stereotypical wise-guys and the caricature nature of the character as written makes it difficult to empathise with and understand the person behind the cliché. Ironically, it’s Michael Lomenda as Nick Massi and Erich Bergen as song writing legend Bob Gaudio who steal the show and delivering their dialogue with subtlety and humour, despite having much less screen and script time than Frankie and Tommy. Of the supporting cast, Christopher Walken is wonderful as sentimental old-school mob boss Gyp DeCarlo and Mike Doyle is showboatingly glorious as Bob Crewe, a music legend and character deserving of an entire biopic of his own.
Rather than integrate the songs into the narrative or tell a fictionalised story, the tale is presented documentary style, with characters frequently breaking the fourth wall to provide commentary or clarification of events and occasionally move the plot forward. It’s a gimmick which is only partially successful and gives the whole affair a muddled and shallow feel. I haven’t seen the stage version so can’t really comment on whether or not the film sticks closely to it or wanders away from the source material to show scenes and events which the stage show couldn’t, but it’s too superficial to be a good biopic and not tuneful enough to be a great musical. It falls uneasily between the two and at times feels like a particularly glossy edition of VH1’s ‘Behind The Music’. Unfortunately, it didn’t cover the one thing I wanted it to touch on, which was his participation in the soundtrack of the movie “Grease”, but that was only because I would have appreciated the metatextual nature of a musical being referenced within the frame of another musical. That’s probably just me though.
Prior to this, the only thing that came to mind when I thought of Clint Eastwood and ‘musical’ in the same sentence was “Paint Your Wagon”, but the veteran actor/ director does a solid if unspectacular job here. The look of the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s are faithfully recreated on screen (the old age make-up for the 1990-set coda however leaves a lot to be desired) and with the exception of a distracting habit of repeatedly placing a conspicuously self-conscious extra in the left side foreground of too many shots, it’s a fine looking film.
As evidenced by the demographic of the screening I attended, this will play well with a certain age group who remember the events first time around. For me, I found I knew more Four Seasons songs than I thought I did but without the nostalgic element, this was an unsatisfying cinema experience. I don’t feel I learned anything about the individuals involved, nor the times and events they were living in and there was too much talking and not enough singing to paper over the uneven and haphazard script.