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A song and a dance, but no fizz

We've had some terrific music biopics in recent years:

Jersey Boys charts the rise to fame of Frankie Valli's Four Seasons
Jersey Boys charts the rise to fame of Frankie Valli's Four Seasons

Control (about Joy Division's Ian Curtis), Walk The Line (Johnny Cash), Ray (Ray Charles). But Jersey Boys doesn't merit a place on that list. Despite the success of the stage musical that spawned it, and the presence of director Clint Eastwood, the film is a little like the music at its heart - more catchy than classic.

Appreciation of the music isn't a requisite, of course, but it helps. And The Four Seasons don't do it for me. With their bland, dated lyrics, screeched in Frankie Valli's falsetto tenor, 1950s hits like Sherry, Big Girls Don't Cry and Walk Like A Man today sound like curio Christmas records.

Nevertheless, the group dominated the American charts in the period immediately before The Beatles came along and upped the ante. And their rags-to-riches story, with the Mob lurking in the wings, is an interesting one. It's the film that fails to make it fizz.

The premise is that this seemingly clean-cut quartet were lucky to be in the music industry at all, given that three of them were from the wrong side of the tracks in New Jersey, a community where a life in the army or the Mob were the only options. Fame was an unlikely third possibility, and one that might stop them from dying young; Valli and his friends were lucky enough to find it.

It opens in 1951. Sixteen-year-old Frankie (John Lloyd Young, reprising his award-winning stage role) is working as a trainee barber, but dreams of being in the music business. His friend Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza) has the seeds of a group, and is keen to include Frankie's "voice of an angel". At the same time, Tommy, a character who might have been lifted from Goodfellas, works for local crime kingpin Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken) and isn't adverse to using Frankie in his illegal activities.

Tommy's perseverance pushes the group forward. The turning point, though, comes with the addition of singer-songwriter Bob Gaudio (Erich Bergen), who's not from the neighbourhood and has more talent and industry savvy than Tommy. A new power dynamic is quietly forged, involving Frankie and Bob, that will eventually undermine the group's cohesion.

The pattern of the film is a familiar one, probably because the evolution of pop and rock careers has its own template - of struggle, breakthrough, success, fame and self-destruction. As ever, the rise is much more satisfying than the fall.

The early stages are buoyant and often very funny: the petty criminal escapades, with Frankie as lookout breaking into song to alert his friends; the usually scary Walken bursting into tears whenever Frankie sings; the formation of their musical style and the effervescent effect on their lives of camp producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), at a time when people thought that Liberace was "just theatrical".

But when their fortunes take a tumble, Eastwood and his screenwriters (who also wrote the book for the musical) drop the ball. The group's problems include internecine warfare, affairs, the tragic effect of constant touring on Frankie's family and the fact that Tommy owes thousands to gangsters. But the decision to maintain essentially the same jaunty tone throughout all this undermines what could have been a gritty and far more fascinating story. And what a shame we don't get a chance to see Walken dance.

Eastwood is a well-known jazz man, so it's not surprising that he demonstrated a much surer touch with Bird, his earlier music biopic of Charlie Parker. If only for the milieu, I would have liked to have seen what Scorsese would have made of this one.

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