Not Fade Away
Everyone knows the ’60s, right? Hippies, beads, free love, acid, and all of it such a small part of the actual 1960s. Mad Men may have helped broaden our memory, but many films stick to that popular image. It probably shouldn’t come as a surprise that David Chase’s Not Fade Away does not. His look back at a young man growing up and out of New Jersey has the feel of an honest memoir, and gives the sense of having actually been there.
Douglas (John Magaro) is a gawky, skinny kid with a bad complexion in 1964. It seems hopeless for him, but then comes the promise of salvation: Mick Jagger and the Rolling Stones. If Douglas can’t be a sports star or matinee idol, he can at least start a rock band. Of course, it’s hardly as easy as that.
They start out playing covers in basement parties, and they’re pretty bad. But when the lead singer (Will Brill) flakes out one night, Douglas steps up from the drum kit and so catches the eye of the girl he’d had a cripush on in high school (Bella Heathcote). But again, it’s not quite as easy as that.
The band’s fortunes wax and wane. They get better and start writing some of their own musics, and even some pieces that “sound almost like real songs”. They have to pay their dues if they’re going to make it, but the prospect of playing two shows a night up and down New York City to unfamiliar and unfriendly crowds seems more like work than the artist’s life they dream of.
Coming out of a sprawling series like The Sopranos, Chase is hardly content with a single storyline. We get glimpses of the emerging hippie ’60s in the erratic behavior of Douglas’ girlfriend’s older sister (Justine Lupe) and how her father (Christopher McDonald) cracks down, which gives a certain levity with a darkness around its edges. We see some of the social progress through the eyes of Douglas’ ditch-digging co-worker (Isaiah Whitlock).
More interesting is the exploration of the era’s changing mores and notions of manhood, expressed through Douglas’ relationship with his father, Pasquale (James Gandolfini). While some of the tangents can feel unkempt, these scenes are among the best in the film. Gandolfini is at his best, and he brings out the best in Magaro. Between the two of them we get the ambivalence on both sides of the relationship, both spoken and silent.
But for all its overreaches, the film really shines when it comes to the soundtrack. With Steven Van Zandt as music producer the whole thing sounds great. He not only picks out the big important hits of the day but the deep cuts playing in the background do a lot of work toward situating the film in its time. And then his work — along with Max Weinberg and others — playing the band’s music makes it sounds fantastic as they settle into their style.
Not Fade Away seems to fit into its skin just a bit awkwardly. In a way it feels like it wants to be a miniseries, and maybe it could have been expanded into one. Still, in his first directorial feature Chase brings an impressive talent to bear, and another outing can surely improve what flaws there are here. Even at 67 and a long way from the youthful memories he draws from, time is on his side.
Worth It: yes.
Bechdel Test: pass.