The life of Frankie Valli and his meeting with Clint Eastwood in person

R | 2h 14m | Biopic | June 20, 2014

In Clint Eastwood’s “Jersey Boys” (2014), we learn that there were only three ways for young Italian-American men to escape from Jersey in 1951: join the army, join the mob, or become famous. “Jersey Boys” is the film version of the Broadway musical about the life and times of Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons: four semi-juvenile delinquents who got out of Belleville, New Jersey, on the third option.

When asked at a June 9, 2014 press conference in Manhattan how he got along so well with this seemingly alien material, Clint Eastwood revealed a little-known fact: Growing up in Oakland, California, his high school and its neighborhood were largely Italian-American. And just like comedian Jay Mohr, who grew up the same way and said it took him years to stop saying “Marone!”, Eastwood hinted that, unbeknownst to most, he has a thorough knowledge of all things Italian-American. Who knew?

For those interested in Clint

The first thing you notice about Clint Eastwood himself is that he’s not Dirty Harry. Nor is he Fervent Republican Clint, scolding Obama-in-a-chair (who wasn’t there). Nor is he that movie star legend, two-fisting Oscar winners in a tuxedo. And he’s definitely not the gruff guy from “Gran Torino.” He’s all of the above, of course, but in person he’s quite different: his voice is higher, he’s very actor in the sense that he’s talkative, loves the spotlight, and is (unsurprisingly) very funny. A chameleon.

It was a bit of a shocking reveal – all those Clint Eastwoods movies and TV shows I thought I knew, and a lot of the Clint Eastwoods audience – all the characters. So who is Clint really? Clint Eastwood is an actor’s actor.

A musical jukebox

At one point in “Jersey Boys”, the group watches 1951’s “Ace in the Hole” on TV in a hotel room. Kirk Douglas’ Chuck Tatum has an altercation. “Do me!” said Lorraine of Jan Sterling to Chuck. Chucks slaps her in the face: To beat! “Oh!! Is she crying?!” asks a member of the group. “No, big girls don’t cry,” replies his bandmate.

(L to R) Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), in “Jersey Boys”. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

A so-called “musical jukebox” often uses an artificial setup to play a famous song. In this case, it’s the truth – that’s how the Four Seasons hit, “Big Girls Don’t Cry,” came into being.

Crowd or Music

At a barbershop in Belleville, New Jersey, local mobster Gyp DiCarlo (Christopher Walken) gets a shave. Young Francis Castelluccio (John Lloyd Young) will do the honors of shaving – it’s his first time. Gyp took him under his wing.

    four men in a barber shop in JERSEY BOYS
(Left to right, 2nd from left) Vito (Steve Schirripa), Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and Gyp DiCarlo (Christopher Walken), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

Francis is in a band. Buddy Tommy is on guitar and Nicky on bass. That kind of harmonizing variety trio was what people wanted to hear back in 1951. That Frankie kid, he’s got a voice! When he sings, it moves Gyp to tears (which, because it’s Walken, is funny).

(Left to right) Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Mary Delgado (Renée Marino), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

Buddy Tommy DeVito might as well be Frankie’s older brother; he is in and out of Rahway Correctional. Frankie’s mom doesn’t like Tommy and his ilk: “I don’t understand the craze for these mamaluke bums!” ( “A mamaluke is an Italian slang term, for someone who does something stupid, dumb, dumb, or dumb, or who is dumb, dumb, dumb, or stupid.”)

Tommy instructs Frankie on girls. “Marriage is when you shave while your wife is sitting on the can, cutting her nails.” But Frankie doesn’t listen to Tommy; he marries Mary Delgado (Renée Marino) who tells him to change his name to Valley. With an “I”. “Valli is more Italian.”

man and woman at restaurant table in JERSEY BOYS
Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) and Mary Delgado (Renée Marino), in “Jersey Boys”. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

From trio to quartet

But around 1960, no one hired trios anymore. They need to move on, so Tommy finds a talent scout named Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo). This Joe Pesci? This Joe Pesci. And Joey Pesci finds them a fourth member, Bob Gaudio, songwriter.

    five men in an empty nightclub in JERSEY BOYS
(GD) Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza), Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), barely visible Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo) and Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

What to do with a group name? As they stand outside a bowling alley called the Four Seasons, its sign goes haywire, the lights go on and off. It’s a sign. With a sign.

The way they sing and play, people think they’re black. They go to the famous Brill Building on Broadway and talk to agents who say, “You? You are not black? “No, we are Italian! “Great! Come back when you’re black!”

(GD) Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

But the agents end up arriving, the contracts signed and the fame grows. And then decreases. Ironically, in the decline phase, we learn that Tommy is in a loan shark named Waxman for $162,000. Plus an extra half a mil to another source.

Tommy’s hustler personality may have finally gotten them off the ground, but now it threatens to bring them back. Nicky eventually leaves the group. Tommy’s compulsive need to use every last towel while in a hotel suite pissed Nicky off.

Tommy also deals dirt to a reporter about Frankie. And yet Frankie with a heart of gold, loyal to the end, ends up playing 200 dates a year in the 70s, in cheap hotels and dive bars, while counter cockroaches roam near his cup of coffee, all to cover Tommy’s huge financial debt. Tell about a friend in need.

man who sings in JERSEY BOYS
Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young, center, in white), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

Perennial Jukebox

Since “Jersey Boys” is based on the Broadway musical, the film version borrows the theatrical device of “breaking the fourth wall”, where the actors speak directly to the camera to tell their stories. It emphasizes the intimate, bygone feel of American neighborhoods where everyone knows each other’s business intimately.

Strongly reminiscent of the now classic “Saturday Night Fever,” which rocketed John Travolta to stardom in 1977, “Jersey Boys” is also about four young Italian-Americans from Manhattan’s outer neighborhoods; the attitudes and the jargon are the same.

five men in JERSEY BOYS
(Left to right) Joey Pesci (Joseph Russo), Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young), Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) and Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda), in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

“Fever” wasn’t a jukebox musical, but its songs were dominating jukeboxes and airwaves across America, and 45 years later they’re still around. The same goes for “Sherry”, “Big Girls Don’t Cry”, “December 1963”, “My Eyes Adored You”, “Grease”, “Rag Doll” and “Walk Like a Man” by Frankie Vallli, to name a few.

An actor director

In “Jersey Boys”, the thick accents like ragù are omnipresent. When you meet the cast in person, you realize there isn’t a hint of crowd-influenced Jersey-ese among them; they don’t walk or talk that way in person, all very articulate. So why not hire some “Jersey Shore” guys for the “Jersey Boys”? Why not Pauly D as Nick Massi instead of Canadian Michael Lomenda? Because Eastwood, an actor, who also directs, prefers directing actors. A Pauly D type couldn’t be chosen either because the performers had to have serious singing chops.

Eastwood has hired musical theater veterans from Broadway shows, with hundreds of experience in those roles under their belt. Young has 1,400 performances, to be exact. This shows. They are classic Broadway actors who, in the words of actor Erich Bergen, “live in fear of working at Starbucks next week.” Clint descends the ladder.

(Left to right) Mike Doyle, Vincent Piazza, Erich Bergen and Michael Lomenda in ‘Jersey Boys’. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

Scene song against movie close-up

So what about the differences between a stage version and a film version of the same story? Co-writer Rick Elice mentioned some of the challenges of bringing a musical to the big screen. The example he gives is that in musicals, the magic of live music is the vehicle for the close-up. Going into song allows us to focus on the inner life of the actor.

In the cinema, however, the music loses its magic. The camera’s close-up becomes the storytelling device that reveals a character’s inner world. The use of the close-up then makes it possible to put more emphasis on the story itself. And it takes a director of Eastwood’s caliber to manipulate the medium to enhance that storytelling to mesmerizing effect.

The Eastwood Film Set

Regarding Clint’s filming background, Bergen (who plays Bob Gaudio, Four Seasons’ preeminent writing talent) said:

“When you walk on a Clint Eastwood set, there’s no ego there. There’s respect for everyone, from the actors to the food truck. (Clint injected in a stage whisper , “Especially the food truck!”)

“The egoless nature of this set teaches me that if you have the talent, everything else doesn’t matter.”

Female roles are rare, with only the actress playing Frankie’s wife getting more than a few lines. Eastwood’s daughter, Francesca Eastwood, plays a waitress.

The only thing really missing is that when Clint pays homage to the musical with an all-actor dance number, he should have left the legendary (but few know) man of song and dance Christopher Walken make a nice soft shoe. While scattering priceless Walken-isms. Clint should have allowed the Saint of Odd Syntax to combine his musical and cinematic talents into an instant and renowned YouTube classic.

    two men in suits in JERSEY BOYS
Gyp DiCarlo (Christopher Walken) and Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) in “Jersey Boys”. (Malpaso Productions/Warner Bros.)

‘Jersey Boys’
Director: Clint Eastwood
With: Christopher Walken, John Lloyd Young, Vincent Piazza, Michael Lomenda, Erich Bergen
Runtime: 2 hours, 14 minutes
MPAA Rating: R
Release date: June 20, 2014
4 out of 5 stars

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