Release Date: June 20, 2014
Rating: R for language throughout
Genre: Drama
Run Time: 134 min.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Vincent Piazza, John Lloyd Young, Erich Bergen, Christopher Walken, Johnny Cannizzaro, Joseph Russo, Mike Doyle, Michael Lomenda

The music of Frankie Valli meets VH-1’s “Behind the Music” in Jersey Boys, the story of the rise and fall of Valli’s group the Four Seasons. Opening in 1951 and tracking the years of the Four Seasons’ ups and downs during the 1960s (Wikipedia says they formed the Four Seasons in 1960)—including a coda set in 1990—Jersey Boys is sweet but sordid, a darker take on music that’s come to be identified with a more carefree, even wholesome era.

Before the Four Seasons found their signature sound, they were just a group of young men growing up in the shadow of the New Jersey Mob. Tommy DeVito (Vincent Piazza, Rocket Science) is a kid with few fears and a troublemaking streak. He runs afoul of the law with his friends Frankie (John Lloyd Young) and Nick (Michael Lomenda), crashes a car and spends six months in the slammer—a second home to repeat offender Tommy.

Tommy also plays in a band with Frankie and Nick, but trios have fallen out of favor with the public. The group needs a fourth member, so Bob (Erich Bergen), the songwriter who has penned the hit “Short Shorts,” joins them. The band eventually settle on a new name, the Four Seasons, and with the help of record producer Bob Crewe (Mike Doyle), the band records several huge hits, including “Sherry,” “Big Girls Don’t Cry” and “Walk Like a Man.”

As the group hits its artistic peak, Frankie’s family life begins to come apart. Just as in an episode of “Behind the Music,” Jersey Boys shows the highs and lows of a popular music group, and that familiar arc makes Jersey Boys—based on a long running Broadway show—often predictable, even though the more morose elements about Frankie’s family life don’t sit well alongside the breezier tone of much of the rest of the film. What keeps Jersey Boys from running off the rails is the commitment of its performers, chiefly Young, who won a Tony award for portraying Valli on Broadway, and Piazza as the cocky Tommy. Bergen, the only member of Four Seasons without a criminal past, offers some positive moral balance to the film—until he, too, succumbs to the temptations of fame and the pressure of his bandmates. Christopher Walken, amusing as a local mobster who helps the boys out of a tough jam, is the film’s most familiar face.

Despite a long running time and a story that sags a bit ahead its finale, Jersey Boys is a pleasure to watch. Not only are the performances strong, but cinematographer Tom Stern makes the darker colors and tones of the 1960s somehow attractive, or at least not outright ugly. Stern’s consistency smoothes over some of the narrative’s rougher transitions, and while there’s not much invention to the camerawork, a couple of shots are striking: a low-angle framing as an enraged woman discards her wedding ring, and Tommy eavesdropping in the foreground of the frame on a conversation between Frankie and Bob. The only tech credit in need of improvement is makeup, which fails to convince when the singers are pictured at a Rock and Roll Hall of Fame reunion in 1990 (the old-age makeup in director Clint Eastwood’s previous film, J. Edgar, was also notably bad).