Musical biographies occasionally pop up, and soon, more than usual will be landing in theaters.
If the newcomers are as good as “Jersey Boys,” then we’re in for some groovy movies.
ABOUT THE FILM
(The Movie Man said he was going to see “Tammy” this week, but, since he’s like the common man, only substantially more educated cinematically, he read the endless horrid reviews and witnessed its lukewarm weekend performance and passed. [The Movie Man’s tricky; he doesn’t always go see what he teases.])
“Jersey Boys” was a huge Broadway hit. Those older folks with money flocked to see a stage dramatization of the history of Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons.
Clint Eastwood, a talented musician himself, took film direction chores. The movie was written by Marshall Brickman (an early Woody Allen associate [he won an Oscar for penning, with Allen, the great “Annie Hall” in 1977]), and Christopher Walken signed on early.
Just when the film version of “Jersey Boys” looked like it was going to be a Hollywood-heavy movie, Eastwood cast all unknowns, keeping the Broadway lead, Tony winner John Lloyd Young, as Valli.
“Jersey Boys” isn’t exactly raking in the cash; that’s too bad – it’s pretty good. Still plenty of other “biopics” loom for musical legends.
Historically, there have been some fantastic musical biopics. “The Jolson Story” (1946) won two Oscars in 1946 with Larry Parks playing the sometimes-blackfaced singer. Jimmy Stewart played the famed bandleader in “The Glen Miller Story” (in 1954).
Later, “La Bamba” (1987) with Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie Valens was a hit and Gary Busey – yes, the crazy guy – was Oscar-nominated in “The Buddy Holly Story” (1978).
“Amadeus” (1984) was huge Academy Award bait, as was Sissy Spacek as Loretta Lynn in “Coal Miner’s Daughter” (1980). Jessica Lange shone as Patsy Cline in “Sweet Dreams” (1985).
Jamie Foxx was incredible as Ray Charles in “Ray” (2004, a 7), and Reese Witherspoon won an Oscar as June Carter Cash in “Walk the Line” (2005, also a 7), the Johnny Cash story.
Several biopics are in the pipeline. Before “Jersey Boys,” a coming attraction about the life of James Brown impressed. “Get On Up” will arrive Aug. 1.
Being considered are pictures about musicians Whitney Houston, Kurt Cobain, Freddy Mercury, David Bowie, Miles Davis and Hank Williams.
Often, however, there is a big stumbling block to movies about musicians – obtaining the rights to their music.
A Jimi Hendrix movie struggled when the filmmakers couldn’t get those rights, so in “Jimi: All Is By My Side,” they had to work around a big obstacle. No “Purple Haze” or “If 6 Was 9”? The movie got a tiny release last March to mixed reviews and will roll out bigger later this year.
“Jersey Boys” has the music rights even though the songs are sung by the actors; they don’t just mime the original records.
The Four Seasons had a huge string of hits from 1962 to 1968 then another burst in ’75-’76. Plus, on his own, Valli had nine Top 40 hits, including a pair of No. 1s. In all, the filmmakers had 39 songs to pull from as the Four Seasons placed 30 songs in the Top 40. (However, they did record others’ music so that number is actually a little lower.)
This sort of music seems like the Dark Ages to younger audiences, and they’re staying away from “Jersey Boys” in droves. (The theater with the Movie Man had eight people in it, all 50-plus.) That’s why the movie is not a hit; it’ll be lucky to reach $50 million.
THE PLOT (SPOILERS)
Tommy (Vincent Piazza) takes teenage Frankie Valli (Young) under his wing in the early 1950s. When doo-wop rises, Piazza tries to put a band together. Young is the man with an angelic voice and he becomes the lead singer.
Even with genial mob man Gyp (Walken) supporting them, they struggle. Then the future Joe Pesci (yes, the actor, played by Johnny Cannizzaro) introduces group leader Piazza to songwriter Gaudio (Erich Bergen).
His tunes are what they are missing. The Four Seasons’ first three songs reach No. 1: “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man” in 1962.
But there is turmoil in the group. Piazza has a massive financial problem and siphons off group money. Young and Bergen agree to form a songwriting partnership behind the scenes. And Young is having serious family trouble back home.
With powerful thugs on their trail, the group breaks up. Young, solo, decides he will pay back every cent of Piazza’s debt, believing he owes his rough buddy for helping him break free of his Jersey life.
The songs remain memorable. There’s no auto-tuning going on here – just pure voices creating classic pop songs. And older audience members will recognize every one of them.
Eastwood’s direction is astonishing. The movie is perfectly pieced together, no mean feat in a song-heavy movie where the spotlight is on a guy singing falsetto on stage. The first 90 minutes are exceptional.
Young especially looks like Valli later in the film, the ’70s. Piazza is solid and so is Bergen as the author of all those great tunes. Walken’s occasional appearances juice the story, too.
Mike Doyle, playing gay producer Bob Crewe, also invigorates things; he plays the role in an almost swishy stereotype, but it works.
The end credit scene is great, a return to an obvious city street set where everyone who has been in the movie performs in a giant dance number.
Piazza gives Bergen a shot as a songwriter. On a piano, he begins playing a song, tentatively.
But Young likes what he hears and joins in. Eventually, so do all the band members, inspiring Bergen to be bolder.
It’s a great scene, and Eastwood handles it perfectly.
WHAT DOESN’T WORK
After 90 minutes, “Jersey Boys” bogs down. When Young goes out on his own to cover Piazza’s massive debt, the film flounders. And sequences with his troubled daughter also feel awkward.
The biggest gripe about the movie is that the characters aren’t fully developed. Also, Eastwood “breaks the wall” by having the actors talk directly to the audience. That didn’t bother the Movie Man but might distract others.
There’s an attempt to highlight other kinds of music that was around in the era. However, there just isn’t time enough in the movie to do that topic any justice.
This is an R for f-bombs only; there are at least 30.
The Movie Man liked “Jersey Boys” – a lot, for most of it. It dropped a number toward the end. Still the movie deserves better than it’s getting at the box office.
“Dawn of the Planet of the Apes.”