It's 1964, the Rolling Stones appear on television and three best friends from the suburbs of New Jersey decide to form a rock band.
While David Chase's name may not be a household word, his legacy most certainly is; he was the creative mastermind behind HBO's "The Sopranos," one of the most popular cable television shows in history. His first crack at a feature film is somewhat of a departure from the seedy underbelly of the organized crime world - it's a rock and roll fantasy called Not Fade Away.
Taking its name from a Buddy Holly song, Not Fade Away is the story of a group of high school friends who live in the New Jersey suburbs in the 1960s and form a band with delusions of grandeur, thinking that they will become the next "Rolling Stones". The band is takes shape when Doug (My Soul to Take's John Magaro), Eugene (Jack Huston from "Boardwalk Empire"), and Wells (Will Brill from Girls Against Boys) get together to learn some songs in an attempt to impress girls, but when Doug comes out from behind the drums to take over lead vocals from Eugene, they get serious about their budding music careers. They quickly discover that being the next big thing is not as easy as it seems, as the band is subjected to internal fighting, resistance from their parents, and the introduction of a Yoko-esque girlfriend into the equation. As obstacle after obstacle to their superstardom pops up, the group struggles to decide if the results will be worth the ride.
Not Fade Away is no feel-good romp through rock and roll history. Sure, the rock and roll history part is there, but the film lacks the optimism and happiness of movies like That Thing You Do or Almost Famous. Basing the screenplay on his own youthful experiences, Chase captures the nihilism of the sixties counterculture pretty effectively. The weakness in his script comes from the underdeveloped character relationships. For example, Doug is completely at odds with his father (Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, from "The Sopranos") over not only his choice to pursue the band as a career option, but over seemingly every other aspect of his life, including his hair and clothes. For all the tension between the two characters, there is really only one scene where the two connect enough to give the audience a glimpse of their real relationship. The conflict between Doug and Eugene is treated similarly; Eugene's jealousy of Doug and their power struggle over creative control of the band is a vital part of the story, yet never gets beyond the superficial argument stage onscreen. Judging from all of the subtle nuance and character development that was present in "The Sopranos," Chase could have done much more with Not Fade Away.
While it may be an accurate snapshot of David Chase's high school music career, Not Fade Away isn't as well put together as it should be. The storyline is one that is all too familiar to rock and roll fans; a band, destined to wallow away in obscurity despite being incredibly talented, goes through the trials and tribulations of the music business. It is made clear from the opening monologue that the group doesn't go on to fortune and fame, and the absence of a triumphant climactic scene holds the film down. The protagonists are, at times, both stubborn and deceitful, making them hard to root for and generally unlikeable. Add in a final epilogue that makes absolutely no sense at all, and Not Fade Away is all journey and no destination.
Not Fade Away
is well casted from front to back. John Magaro, Jack Huston and Will Brill are very believable as the members of the naive, idealistic band whose head is in the clouds but whose feet are sinking in mud. James Gandolfini is typically great, although his character is strangely reminiscent of Tony Soprano, a fact that is to be expected given the age, background and geography of both men. Another bright spot is Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows
), who is simultaneously charming and spiteful as Grace, Doug's love interest who, before hooking up with him, made her way around the music community of the town. The cast is rounded out by a few big names like Brad Garrett and Lisa Lampanelli in glorified bit parts, all making the most of their limited screen time. The ensemble works well to keep the movie entertaining, even when the story is not. When things start to make no sense in Not Fade Away
, the actors still manage to reel it back in so the film doesn't go completely off track.
A rock and roll movie is only as strong as its soundtrack and, fortunately for Not Fade Away, its music is top-notch. Music supervisor Steven Van Zandt (another of Chase's buddies from "The Sopranos" and a member of Bruce Springsteen's "E Street Band") carefully selects music that is indicative of the time period, using songs by the "Rolling Stones", "Bo Diddley" and "The Left Banke" to capture the spirit and attitude of the era. The well placed songs fit nicely in with the original tunes to create a musical tapestry that not only serves to advance the narrative, but defines the characters and their feelings. The characters of the film are, first and foremost, music fans, and the period-specific soundtrack does a good job at reflecting this. As the center of most of the character's lives, music is at the forefront of Not Fade Away, and the soundtrack gives the audience a good idea of why rock and roll is so important to the culture.
December 21, 2012