As the acclaimed creator of HBO’s The Sopranos, there’s little doubt that David Chase’s ambition helped usher in a new wave of dramatic television. His feature directorial debut, Not Fade Away, is a simpler and more personal affair, a semi-autobiographical period piece set in the roaring 1960s when rock ‘n roll was the soundtrack to the world’s turbulent evolution.
Even as the vibe and mood of the era are eerily accurate and sufficiently nostalgic, Chase doesn’t actually have anything to say about it, and certainly brings nothing new to the table. More content with basking in the sights and sounds of the period, the film rambles from one episodic moment to the next, only finding life in its adoration of the golden age of rock music.
Once again exploring the rigors of growing up in hard-scrabble New Jersey, Chase explores the impacts of a changing society on a notoriously traditional culture. John Magaro plays Douglas, a rock ‘n roll junkie obsessed with the bluesy sounds of The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, and others, he joins with popular lead singer Eugene(Jack Huston) and guitarist Wells(Will Brill) to form their own band. After a few gigs, the neighborhood(and the local girls) begin to start paying attention, and dreams of moving away and pursuing their dreams to the fullest begin to swirl.
This doesn’t go over well with the rest of Douglas’ family, including his stern blue-collar father(James Gandolfini) and eternally negative mother(Molly Price). Chase treads on familiar ground here, as Douglas’ increasingly liberal perspective forces him into some ugly familial confrontations. Chase only hints at the generational divide between father and son rather than exploring it fully. Like so much else in the film, the surface is barely skimmed in an effort to show as much as possible, leading to a disturbingly unfocused story overall.
It’s almost as if Chase is trying to cram an entire season’s worth of material into a single episode, as he juggles a number of potentially interesting storylines that don’t receive their proper attention. Like all of the great bands throughout history, petty jealousies and power grabs bubble to the surface. Douglas usurps power from Eugene and takes over as lead vocalist, mostly encouraged by his new girlfriend, the beautiful and thoughtful Grace(Dark Shadows’ Bella Heathcote), who tells him how soulful his voice is. Grace’s family life is also a frequently visited sidebar, as she deals with a crazy flower child of a sister. Meanwhile, the band’s turbulent membership is a continuing issue, Douglas’ father suffers health complications, romantic troubles ensue, and Douglas contemplates a move to Los Angeles to become a filmmaker. That’s barely the half of it, as Chase also wants us to pay attention to the blossoming civil rights movement and the Vietnam War as well. It’s really quite exhausting.
With Steven Van Sandt guiding the film’s musical selection, it’s awash in an eclectic mix of rock classics and old blues standards. Everything from Bob Dylan, to the aforementioned Rolling Stones, to Howlin’ Wolf and even The Kings provide the energetic soundtrack and punctuate authenticity of the era. Certainly they do a better job than the various news reel footage clips Chase intersperses throughout, which just seem tacked on and frivolous. The music, and Chase’s strict devotion to detail in every other aspect are enough to forgive most of the film’s other problems.
Unfortunately, Chase doesn’t get a lot of help on the acting front. Gandolfini gives a fiery performance that has echoes of his Tony Soprano. He’s tough and perhaps meaner than he should be, but also fiercely loyal to his family. Magaro doesn’t add much presence to the lead role, and he comes off as more aloof than I think the script intends for him to be. He certainly doesn’t give Douglas the soulful swagger the character needs for believability’s sake. Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston has more charisma in spades, but doesn’t get nearly the opportunity to show it. Bella Heathcote perhaps comes out the best of all as the attractive high school queen trying to become something more. She doesn’t get nearly enough to say, but her words are always meaningful and drive the direction of the story. It’s unfortunate that Chase seems to forget about her in the end, as the film devolves into a bizarre exploration of Hollywood excess in the final moments. As Douglas’ younger sister, a peripheral character throughout, suddenly emerges for a Sex Pistols-inspired dance number under the L.A. night sky, one has to wonder if Chase recognized that his passion project lacked anything truly memorable. Not Fade Away succeeds as a sentimental trip down memory lane, but never quite goes deep enough to make much of an impact.