By Benjamin Mercer
Not Fade Away
Dir. David Chase, U.S., Paramount Vantage
â€śWhat kind of movie is this?â€ť the protagonist of Not Fade Away wonders aloud to his girlfriend as theyâ€™re taking in Antonioniâ€™s Blow-Up during an evening out. Of course, itâ€™s an altogether easier question to answer in the case of this rather halting KĂĽnstlerroman about a musician whoâ€™s an amateur in nearly every estimation but his own. The first feature film written and directed by Sopranos creator David Chase, Not Fade Away is principally a period film: a small-scale dramedy set against the backdrop of the tumultuous sixties as they unfold in a tri-state town within spitting distance ofâ€”but a world away fromâ€”the Villageâ€™s bohemian mecca.
From the beginning, Chase cues up a familiar backbeat of current events both cultural and historicalâ€”he opens with a one-off dramatization of Keith Richards and Mick Jaggerâ€™s storied meeting on a London train; heavy references to the Kennedy assassination follow soon thereafter; and the Vietnam War eventually makes for heated dinner-table conversation. Not long after weâ€™re introduced to the scrawny drummer Douglas (John Magaro), heâ€™s complaining about how girls donâ€™t like him, but in short order heâ€™s home from college for Christmas break, possessed of a newfound swagger. His hard-ass father (James Gandolfini) and put-upon mother (Molly Price) are none too pleased that heâ€™s grown his hair out into a Bob Dylan tangle. Dad refers to his sonâ€™s accompanying Cuban heels as â€śnigger shoesâ€ťâ€”perhaps the boldest part of the film is that its dialogue attempts a head-on portrayal of the ugly attitudes inherent in this suburban New Jersey community throughout the transformative decade in question (the word â€śfagâ€ť is also present, in spades). In one of the filmâ€™s better scenes, Chase shows the staunchly countercultural Douglas stumbling over his own assumptions based on race: the young man, a hardcore listener of the blues, tries to relate to a black coworker via the musicâ€™s lyrics and is stunned when his ditch-digging companion responds by recommending the â€śsoulfulâ€ť music of Tony Bennett.
The stage here feels crowdedâ€”a band-dynamics saga and a love story (the two occasionally intersect) also jockey for the spotlight. Much to his fatherâ€™s dismay, Douglas drops out of school to focus on his band back home, which includes rock-god wannabe Eugene (Jack Huston) and the more thoughtful Wells (Will Brill). Their unnamed group undergoes a number of lineup changesâ€”with Douglas eventually ousting Eugene as lead singerâ€”and shifts focus away from copycat blues-rock covers toward somewhat janglier original material. Much of the scriptâ€™s humor derives from their delusions of grandeur: while they remain in their hometown, talking about the band more than refining its sound, they clearly expect the worldâ€”major-label deals, sold-out tours, feeding-frenzy press conferences. Amid these assumptions of a bright future, Douglas begins a romance with his high-school crush, Grace (Bella Heathcote). The filmâ€™s portrait of cusp-ofâ€“Summer of Love coupledom is one of its fresher aspects, although Graceâ€™s home life becomes the filmâ€™s most glaring false note. Her older sister, Joy (Dominique McElligott), is introduced as extremely nonconformist, later suggested to be mentally unstable, and then promptly institutionalized by her unfeeling country-club parents.
While most of the touchstones here are musical (from Sgt. Pepperâ€™s on out), Blow-Up is far from the only cinematic reference. Early on, we see a theater marquee advertising Vincent Price in The Pit and the Pendulum; later, Douglas and Grace watch Touch of Evil on television, and Grace reads aloud a text by Orson Welles. The two also attend a showing at a drive-in, where the projected images in the background become a vital component in a scene primarily depicting the coupleâ€™s stability during otherwise difficult times. Douglas develops his own ideas about moviemaking, as well. At a family cookout, Douglas defends himself against lightly critical family members by observing, pretentiously, that music and movies are â€śthe only two art forms that take place over elapsed time.â€ť He also, eventually, sets his sights on film school, expressing particular interest in the interplay between music and the film image.
All this moving-image material is meant to have a deflationary effect in some respectsâ€”the snippets of pristine finished works like Blow-Up and Touch of Evil further highlight the fact that Douglas (as yet, at least) has no achievements of real substance to back up his posturingâ€”but it also winds up calling further attention to Not Fade Awayâ€™s own piecemeal assembly. The film is frequently entertaining to look at and listen to: Magaro convincingly plays disaffection from a spaced-out remove that seems both studied and genuine, and he nails the scenes in which he depicts Douglasâ€™s outraged but rather confused radicalism; musical supervisor Steven Van Zandt (of the E Street Band and The Sopranos) has curated a surprisingly eclectic soundtrack; and thereâ€™s a strong overall sense of suburban place. But Not Fade Away is essentially a loose national-through-the-personal rundown of the sixties, and as such its overarching narrative feels distinctly secondhand. In short, itâ€™s something like a greatest-hits recordâ€”engineered to please the crowd, but as a whole somehow unsatisfying, lacking the texture of a less overstuffed long-player.