Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Marshall Brickman & Rick Elice
Executive Producers: Frankie Valli & Bob Gaudio
Songs: Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe
John Lloyd Young – Frankie Valli
Vincent Piazza – Tommy DeVito
Michael Lomenda – Nick Massi
Erich Bergen – Bob Gaudio
Mike Doyle – Bob Crewe
Christopher Walken – Gyp DeCarlo
Joey Russo – Joe Pesci
Katherine Narducci – Mary Rinaldi
I haven’t seen the stage musical, though I bought the Broadway soundtrack, and John Lloyd Young played Frankie Valli in the original 2005 production. So he knows the words!
With any biopic, you look at bias, reality, embroidering. The Four Seasons, from very early on, was and is a partnership of Frankie Valli, lead singer and Bob Gaudio, main songwriter. They are the executive producers of this and the stage musical, so we must assume we have the authorized version. The biopic centres on the original quartet, who were a trio for an astonishingly long time, almost a decade, before they found Bob Gaudio. The story concentrates on them until Tommy DeVito (vocal, guitar) and Nick Massi (vocal, bass guitar) left. After that, there were forty members of The Four Seasons apart from Valli and Gaudio.
Frankie Valli (John Lloyd Young) as a trainee barber gets to shave Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken)
It takes nearly an hour to get them as far as their first hit, Sherry in 1962, and it’s all great drama and storytelling too. I was surprised to realize how old they were in 1962. Valli was 28, De Vito was 34, Massi was 35. No wonder they seemed so showbiz compared to The Beatles. Gaudio was easily the youngest, just twenty when they had their first hit, so the only one of The Beatles half-generation. But Gaudio had been a member of The Royal Teens when he was fourteen, along with a young Al Kooper, and Gaudio co-wrote their hit song, Short Shorts, a #3 US hit in 1958.
Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza)
I had never realized that the Four Seasons (or 4 Seasons on earlier discs) had criminal records and Massi and DeVito both served time in prison … Valli got off with a warning. All this is in the film, along with the selection of lachrymose songs they played in New Jersey cabarets in the 1950s, while mobsters wept with joy. Tommy Devito (played by Vincent Piazza) is as central as Valli. He’s the crooked one, the aggressive one, the one who thinks he is the leader until it all goes horribly wrong … he’s the most interesting character. You sympathize with Nick Massi (Michael Lomenda) who did the deep bass interventions on the records, as all the frustration of years of rooming with DeVito … they were always the second-class citizens, but never knew it … bubbles up and he quits. “In a group, what’s the fun of being the Ringo,” he says. Nice line, but I’d guess was the scriptwriters’ idea.
More to the point, for narrative reasons the big bust up gets compressed. Though the DeVito buy-out incident occurred in 1969, in reality Nick Massi had left the band years earlier in 1964. In the movie, the bust-up appears to be 1966, as Working My Way Back To You is the current song. I had wondered about the use of “The 4 Seasons featuring the Sound of Frankie Valli” then “Frankie Valli and The 4 Seasons” from the mid-60s, because as the drummer is never mentioned or indeed addressed, it would appear to be Frankie Valli and the 3 Seasons. In fact Massi’s initial replacement was Charlie Callelo, who had been the arranger of their early hits. From then on it’s a revolving door.
It was fascinating to see their year of 1961 stuck as backing singers by Bob Crewe and good to see The Angels My Boyfriend’s Back to keep up the mood of the era. But Sherry was their second single. Bermuda was their first and a total flop, though early versions of the band before Gaudio had made some obscure records. No matter, it’s a movie, not a notarized list of facts.
Gyp DeCarlo (Christopher Walken)
The Mob is another question. Christopher Walken plays their patron and protector, Gyp DeCarlo, and you’d have to say it’s the image the Mob might like to see of themselves. Tough but fair, generous and supportive to their friends, wise and just. When they have to send out the heavies, as when Valli’s daughter Francine is in bad company, they’re threatening, but hey, they’re right. The story makes it unquestionable that the band were involved with prototype Sopranos as well as displaying falsettos, and on the break up of the four, Valli and Gaudio were saddled with nearly a million dollars they had to pay off to gambling syndicates and also to the IRS … Tommy DeVito got them in the hole. Valli appeared in The Sopranos as Rusty Millo. You’d have to say the film is Mob sympathetic. Apparently DeCarlo was a good friend, and did broker the deal that divided the group, packing Tommy DeVito off to permanent exile in Nevada. According to Valli, the scene where DeCarlo wept as Valli warbled My Mother’s Eyes is 100% correct. Well, in the film he certainly seems a nice guy … and the Mafia seem quite cuddly and benign.
The Four Seasons may have got saddled with DeVito’s huge gambling debts, but they weren’t put on a mob-label like Roulette, and mid-60s moved to Mercury, which meant Philips worldwide which was a straight-forward hardware based company. So someone was looking out for them.
Frankie Valli (1970s) (John Lloyd Young)
John Lloyd Young does a brilliant portrayal of Valli, as he gets harder and begins to realize that Tommy DeVito is a burden as well as a loudmouth. The crucial point in the story is their arrest at the Ohio State Fair in 1965 for non-payment of a hotel bill the year before. Paying was DeVito’s responsibility. They all end up in jail and Valli never forgave that. In the film it’s Cleveland, though the State Fair was in Columbus. Intriguingly, only Valli’s police mugshot has turned up, though DeVito and Gaudio were with him. Massi was not in reality … because he had already left. But he is the film. There was a designed circularity with the film ending with their performance in Cleveland at 1990s Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Except in 1990 that was held in New York. And the Four Seasons didn’t sing. Ah, well. It’s a heart-warming moment in the film!
Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle)
The portrayal of Bob Crewe is notable, as a wealthy flamboyantly gay producer … I mean, the man has white carpets in his apartment!. Crewe was an integral part of their success, and I reproduced the end credits of the movie above. It says: Music by Bob Gaudio, Lyrics by Bob Crewe. The records say Crewe-Gaudio. From the film, you would assume that Gaudio was the sole writer. Crewe only a producer with no creative input in writing. Not what the song credits say. In that era, most producers were “partial to a credit” But Crewe has a long track record, much of it on his own, including the wonderful Music To Watch Girls By as the Bob Crewe Generation, and his DynoVoice label produced much worthy stuff. Notably the “Early Years” performances by The Four Lovers (as they were then) include Bob Crewe’s first hit song, Silhouettes, a 1957 hit. He is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame. I know absolutely nothing of his personal life but apparently he was bisexual. The lyrics of Can’t Take My Eyes Off of You were about a boyfriend … so he DID write the lyrics. No mention of that in the story.
I sensed the whiff of scores being settled by Valli and Gaudio, and after watching the film, looked at Rock Lives by Timothy White (1990) where I recalled an interview with Frankie Valli from 1976. There was a rift, with Valli complaining that Crewe had stuck him with $30,000 to $40,000 of unfinished tracks, while actually producing Disco-Tex and His Sex-o-lettes. That rings true … Crewe had used up spare time on the Barbarella soundtrack sessions to record Music To Watch Girls By.
Valli told Timothy White:
I don’t mean to discredit anybody, but Bob Gaudio in my opinion had produced everything in those early Four Seasons records. He also sat and worked out every arrangement on everything the Four Seasons or Frankie Valli ever did … and was never credited … Bob Crewe was the official producer and he wasn’t about to split his production credits with anybody. Bob Crewe is a music writer in this sense: Without anybody to write chords and melodies, how are you gonna write music? Bob Crewe has not had any writing success unless it’s been with somebody else – which tells you something immediately.”
So I guessed right. White of course asked Bob Crewe who riposted:
I don’t know what kind of credit Gaudio wanted. I think Bob got his credit as a writer. If you’re gonna start on that, you have to start giving more credit to the assigned arranger, which was usually Charlie Callelo. There are no bad memories in my head … If you want to go around throwing bitter pills saying ‘Hey, I put that music together, I should have been called the producer’ well, that’s your problem to digest. That was one of the reasons why we split.
As ever then. Lennon v McCartney, Jagger v Richards, Robbie Robertson v Levon Helm. But on this one, clearly, Valli and Gaudio have had the last laugh.
Even though Tommy DeVito comes out as fascinating character, I suspect a little deserved payback from Valli & Gaudio there as well. The bit that really upset the real Tommy about the movie was the suggestion that he wore his underwear for three days and peed in the sink. He denies it strenuously. But that’s imprinted on him now. That’s the joy for many of writing fiction, recasting your personal history with a soupçon of vengeance.
The Four Seasons partnership was and is just Frankie Valli (left), Bob Gaudio (right). Period.
Let’s be anorak. The first performance where Valli joins the band onstage is in 1951. Massi is playing a Fender Precision Bass which would have been a very early one indeed … the first ones sold were in 1951, and it was the first electric bass guitar, and the earliest ones look a tad different. I’m sure his is a post 1953, but it seems unlikely they had one at all in 1951. Incidentally, every stage shot shows them with different coloured Fenders … probably accurate. They would have got them free.
Bob Gaudio shows them “Sherry” for the first time and they sing it to Bob Crewe by phone
(L to R: Tommy DeVito, Bob Gaudio, Frankie Valli, Nick Massi)
One bit they feature strongly is Bob Gaudio losing his virginity at a party in … wait for it … December 1963. Oh, What a night indeed. The film rolls at the start with an instrumental version, and ends with a truly wonderful street dance scene to December 1963 (Oh What A Night) involving everyone who has appeared in the film … an obvious borrowing from the stage production, and ensemble dance is the standard encore at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre or Shakespeare’s Globe. Whatever, it’s great, and the song features prominently. So I guess we are supposed to interpret is as autobiographical and describing that incident. Probably fiction, I’m afraid. Gaudio wrote it in 1975 with his wife Judy Parker. The original title was December 5th 1933 and celebrated the repeal of prohibition. Bob Gaudio showed Timothy White the original lyric:
Mushin’ mash beneath their feet
Doin’ the Charleston in the street
Ain’t no way to be discreet
Rollin’ around in a rumble seat
Oh, what a night! December fifth in 1933 …
Judy Parker and Frankie Valli persuaded him to change the title and Judy Parker wrote the new lyrics, not Gaudio. There’s that great line about the event As I recall it ended much too soon. That’s not to say the resulting lyric was not about the night portrayed in the film … but I think it was a nice sequence based on the song rather than autobiography.
Frankie meets his wife …
The death of Valli’s daughter, Francine, is the sad part of the story. At the time Valli was interviewed in 1976 he described his ongoing battle against hearing problems, having been told in 1967 that he would go completely deaf. Not a lot of fun, but another sad and dramatic part of his story. I would have been tempted to slip it in, but as it is, it runs to two hours ten minutes, and really only goes up to the split, and that was pushed back to their hit Working My Way Back To You.. There’s a quick jump to My Eyes Adored You, then we see Can’t Take My Eyes Off Of You, and leap to their reunion at the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Those were good narrative decisions in tightening the focus.
I guess My Eyes Adored You suggests a sequence on their period on Motown sub-label, MoWest. They had the song, but Motown owner Berry Gordy wouldn’t release it because he was totally focussed on Diana Ross in The Lady Sings The Blues. Valli had to do a deal with independent Private Stock to get it released. The point about signing with Motown is that early on, listeners thought the band were black, and Berry Gordy was a huge admirer. Frankie Valli notes proudly that they sold into the R&B charts. As I’ve noted in my Toppermost article on The Four Seasons, Workin’ My Way Back To You and Let’s Hang On fit perfectly in a playlist of 1965-66 soul hits, and were the only white songs played at my local discotheque then.
The performances are excellent throughout
Overall. It got applause at the end. That’s rare. I thoroughly enjoyed it, and not just because I love The Four Seasons music. It was well-told, well-acted and well-filmed. The shot where they enter the Brill Building and the camera climbs through the floors is excellent work by anyone’s standards. I loved the little Hitchcock moment … in the bedroom in December 1963, the TV is running with Rawhide with director Clint Eastwood on the screen in his early incarnation as Rowdy Yates. The girl, who is Gaudio’s Christmas present from the guys, switches it straight off. OK, the December 1963 scene is irresistible and fits. I take it back.
What is so good is that the music is really the actors singing. As a result it’s not perfect. Not as good as the original records, but it sounds live, and I’m pretty sure the Four Seasons would have been better on record than live. Like the Broadway soundtrack, the rhythm section is never as good as the originals either … the drums just don’t have the snap and presence of those 1960s Bob Crewe productions … Bob Gaudio produced the soundtrack recording, but that’s all fine. The result is believability. It sounds real. The Angels on their cameo appearance are pretty wobbly, but they would have been. Three of the cast had performed in Jersey Boys on stage. A device which works is that each of the band members “breaks the fourth wall” and addresses the audience directly … the Tommy DeVito character gets the lion’s share of this narrator role. It’s a stage device, but Eastwood transfers it seamlessly to film.
The ensemble dance ending
On my film judging criteria (Buy the Blu-ray on release v buy the DVD on release v wait till the DVD is lss than £5 v don’t buy) it gets my top “Buy the Blu-Ray on release rating).
SEE ALSO MY ARTICLE ON THE (real) FOUR SEASONS on The Toppermost website.