What do you do after you’ve created the seminal television drama of our time? If you’re David Chase, it seems that you take a few years off to soak in your Sopranos adulation and awards (consistently refusing to discuss the controversial ending, of course), and when you return, you do it on a much smaller canvas, with a jaunt down your own memory lane. Not Fade Away is the result, a painstaking yet ramshackle journey, once again, to the mid-1960s, when middle-class young men smoked dope, wore their hair long, played rock and roll, and believed they were changing the world.
We’ve been here before, of course, in one way or another: the sunny mid-America of That Thing You Do!,
the true-life histories of Backbeat and Nowhere Boy, not to mention the more general panoply of 1960s sagas that didn’t focus entirely on bands. There’s also more than a little of Paul Schrader’s Light of Day and Alan Parker’s The Commitments here, even though those working-class rock movies are set 20 years later. To be sure, Chase (who was himself in a band in those days), has added a measure of specificity to the recipe, but there’s still a great deal in Not Fade Away that feels familiar to the point of cliche.Our presumably Chase-like protagonist–he’s the one who ends up leaving music for movies–is Douglas (John Magaro), son of contractor Pat (James Gandolfini, doing a lot with very little), who predictably looks on disapprovingly as his son’s hair grows and his politics move to the left. Inspired by the Rolling Stones, Douglas forms a band with arrogant Eugene (Jack Huston, all but unrecognizable from Boardwalk Empire), Wells (Will Brill) and Joe (Brahm Vaccarella). The girl–there’s always a girl–richer and more elegant than the boys, who starts out with Eugene and then shifts her affections, is Grace (Bella Heathcote, last seen as Victoria Winters in Dark Shadows). (Grace’s sister, who shows up periodically as a talismanic victim of the decade, is played by Grace McElliogott, who will be much missed from next season’s Hell On Wheels.) The band rises, although not very high, and then collapses in on itself, an all-too-obvious mirror of its decade.
Chase’s strength has always been in character and detail more than plotting–The Sopranos was rife with unresolved story points and characters who were introduced with seeming purpose and then abruptly dropped–and Not Fade Away often lurches as a narrative, with jumps in time that aren’t always clear until some current event is brought up in dialogue (Chase eschews such aids as title cards to tell us when we
are), and gaps in logic. While The Sopranos allowed Chase to lock in microscopically on a particular moment and examine its implications for the whole crew, the years spanned by Not Fade Away (it seems to take place from 1963 to around 1968) require everything to be rushed, as references to Vietnam and civil rights are dropped while everyone becomes radicalized and then disillusioned along their familiar arc.There are, of course, fine moments along the way, as one would expect from a work written and directed by Chase. The mix of exhilaration and disappointment faced by the guys is often beautifully judged, the young actors are unforced and genuine, and along with Gandolfini, Brad Garrett as a weary manager provides a lovely bit (even if his character, yet again, is much like Tom Hanks’ in That Thing You Do!). The production design by Ford Wheeler is exacting without being overly fussy, Eigil Bryld’s cinematography is subdued, and naturally there’s a marvelous score of both famous and lesser-known songs on the soundtrack (the music supervisor is another old friend, Steven Van Zandt).
Not Fade Away is very accomplished; it feels like the film Chase wanted to make. Yet it’s a very minor achievement, a footnote about being a footnote that doesn’t find a reason for adding to the pile of similar pictures we’ve been watching for years. There may not be much expected of the band at its center, but from David Chase, the man who reinvented television in his image, it doesn’t seem unduly harsh to have hoped for more. The movie, like an AM radio signal in a car traveling between cities, becomes indistinguishable from its own background noise.Read more news and reviews from Mitch Salem at Showbuzzdaily.
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