David Chase's Not Fade Away is a stylish but cluttered tale of rock and roll in the '60s.
Before getting down to the nitty-gritty of declaring cinema culture dead last September, Salon's Andrew O'Hehir made a significantly more accurate point about one specific film. Of Sopranos creator David Chase's feature directorial debut Not Fade Away, O'Hehir asked, "Why bother?... As Chase must realize, there is no way on God's green earth that Not Fade Away—whether it's good, bad or indifferent—will have anywhere near the cultural currency or impact of The Sopranos." The surprise isn't that, of the three, the film falls somewhere between good and bad; it's that Chase has made a film that is so loudly and clearly screaming to be a television series rather than a feature film.
The director insists otherwise. At the press conference following the picture's New York Film Festival debut, Chase stated flatly, "I never thought about it in terms of television. What I wanted to do when I got finished with The Sopranos was do a movie." The confidence of that statement may provide us something of an insight into how Chase's process works. The only thing that makes Not Fade Away more of a "film" than The Sopranos is its (surely expensive) production design and considerable music licensing budget—it's certainly not the narrative, which is clearly the work of a man far more accustomed to telling stories in 13 hours than two.
The film's early scenes are promising. It opens on a perfectly pitched note of rock-and-roll energy, as Chase hard cuts in on a television broadcasting a musical number (from one of those old Hullabaloo-style programs), then cuts just as jarringly to a test pattern, whose Emergency Broadcast System buzz ends up timing perfectly to the opening riffs of "Satisfaction." It's a crackerjack juxtaposition of music, culture, and period—a promise that they movie can't quite keep. From there we plunge into the story of Douglas (John Magaro), a skinny teenager who wants nothing more than to play rock. Chase's initial masterstroke is to begin at that point we've always heard about between the Kennedy assassination and the arrival of the Beatles, and to show the impact of that arrival on Douglas and his buddies, who decide to start a band.
That's a story worth telling. It's one we've seen before, sure, but not in Chase's distinctive, curveball style. His characters and period are well-established, the music choices are delicious (Sopranos co-star and E Street Band member Steven van Zandt was music supervisor), and he has a real feel for the draw of rock at that moment—the sensuality of it, the hungry way that his ingénue (Bella Heathcote) looks at Mick Jagger on television and transfers that gaze to Douglas.
Trouble is, Chase isn't content to just tell a story about a Jersey garage band trying to get a break. Not Fade Away tries to be several other things as well: a family melodrama, a nuanced romance, and—the most ill-advised move of all—a Document of The '60s. His screenplay races through five-plus years of music, politics, and culture, throwing in references and iconography by the handful, less to impress, it seems, than to orientate (there can't be a billboard for an obscure movie—it has to be a billboard for The Graduate). A couple of ribbing period references are nice, but we get an entire scene of Douglas and his girl at Blow-Out, solely so he can stare at the screen and ask, "What kinda movie is this? Nothing happens!"
Don't get me wrong—that's a big, welcome laugh. But there's so much going on here, it seems strange to waste a couple of minutes in pursuit of it. You can all but hear the filmmaker struggling to stuff a season's worth of subplots into his 112 minutes: We don't just have all the guys in the band to deal with, but the rich family of girlfriend Grace (complete with a crazy hippie sister), and a full complement of woes with Douglas's family, from concerns over long hair and grades to a cancer scare. And then there's Doug and Grace's romance, which seems to be missing giant swathes of screen time—it's treated (as much of the film is) in little bits of what seem much longer scenes, along with an occasional bout of storytelling-by-montage, in which lyrics do the heavy lifting. And then there's the baffling voice-over narration by Douglas's little sister, which appears once at the beginning, once in the middle (to explain this thing that happened in 1967, a "Summer of Love"), and then at the end, to wrap things up. Why bother with such a worn-out device if you're going to use it so intermittently?
All of this carping probably makes Not Fade Away sound far worse than it is. It's impressively mounted and detailed (I liked the placement of the Robert Johnson album as "serious music fan" totem). Chase's peerless ability to build up to sudden, hard narrative shocks is fully intact. The prominence of television—as an omnipresent soundtrack, background, and counterpoint—is a nice touch. (Also, for whatever it's worth, I could watch an entire film of James Gandolfini skeptically watching television.) The self-importance of young musicians is an easy target, but when they play their big song, the picture sells it as both a moving climax and a convincing snapshot of a band with real potential. And the closing images are sheer perfection. It is, in other words, a movie of moments. If Chase were working on a big enough canvas to dig all of those moments out of his too-vast narrative, he might've really had something here.