I’m confused as to which years are supposed to be the best years of your life. Is it supposed to be your 20s? Maybe it’s when things settle down in your 30s or 40s. Or perhaps it’s the second wave of freedom in your 50s and 60s? According to David Chase’s first feature length film, it might be none of those ages. Or maybe all of them, if you’re hip enough to stop and listen to the music.
Not Fade Away is a nostalgic look at life in the ’burbs during the ’60s. We follow a group of budding high school musicians, a revolving assortment of friends trying to work their way to the rock ’n’ roll dream, and move to the big city just outside of Jersey. Our leading man, Douglas (John Magaro), moves his way up to lead singer in his band and grows the confidence wallflowers pine for. He develops a crush on Grace (Bella Heathcote), a pretty girl he meets at a party. Because the characters are safely in high school, the tragedies of the Vietnam War miss them, as do the excesses of the counterculture, hilariously embodied by Grace’s hedonistic sister, Joy.
With executive producer, musical supervisor, and former Sopranos mainstay, Steve Van Zandt, Not Fade Away packs the majority of its emotional punches to the tune of great classic rock. The young actors learned to sing and play their instruments for that extra touch of authenticity. The acting is superb from almost every actor. Lead Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, reassumes his role of a beleaguered patriarch struggling to make ends meet (without all the whacking). Gandolfini is a stellar grumpy dad, telling his son to cut his hair and to look at him when he’s talking. We’re almost afraid for his son when he dares to fire back a smart remark. Doug and Grace’s on-and-off relationship is sometimes pushed aside for heady band drama, a big mistake, especially once the relationship develops into something more serious. The boys fight among each other more so than Doug and Grace, so it’s a tense test of the viewer’s sympathies for strongly opinionated teenagers. (I might have also done without the little sister’s narration and the silly ending over which she presides.)
While rock ’n’ roll might save your soul, it won’t make up for the film’s meandering plot. Fights between band members, tragedies, addiction and family problems are interesting to watch, but it can get heavy and hard to follow when the action moves away from the leading man. About an hour and a half into this argumentative environment, and it begins to feel as if everyone is trying to dominate each other. If this was an attempt to capture an uneasy time of growing up, the movie overwhelms us with the sentiment. Chase might have been better off with a streamlined story that followed Doug, and not every peripheral character in sight. (There’s enough backstory and characters to give Not Fade Away its own HBO series.)
That said, it’s still a pretty rocking debut for a director we never quite knew could make us smile without needing the word “grimly” in front of it. Perhaps Not Fade Away is a tad too ambitious out of the gate, but there are worse things to weigh down a film. And whether you can relate more to the kids trying to make their rock star dreams a reality or to the dad dealing with changing times, Not Fade Away lets anyone tune in and enjoy.
Director: David Chase
Writer: David Chase
Starring: James Gandolfini, John Magaro, Will Brill, Jack Huston, Bella Heathcote, Brad Garrett, Christopher McDonald
Release Date: Dec. 21, 2012