Not Fade Away Review

(2.5 STARS)

David Chase—creator of HBO’s The Sopranos—makes his debut as a feature filmmaker with Not Fade Away. Though not a far cry from his mafia series geographically (this film is more Jersey than Mike “The Situation”), Not Fade Away‘s subject matter couldn’t be more different. Focusing on a young man determined to be the next Mick Jagger, Chase’s film, unfortunately, doesn’t have the same singular direction as its main character. It’s a lovely portrait of a specific time and place, and when it focuses on this young man’s relationship with his rough-around-the-edges father, it’s exceptional. But by the time Not Fade Away reaches its “onion rings moment,” you’ll no longer care enough to feel outraged. You’ll merely feel relief that this bloated disappointment is over.

Doug (John Magaro) is, for better and worse, Not Fade Away‘s heart and soul. We meet him as a soon-to-be high-school graduate. He has big plans to enlist and serve his country, which makes his father (James Gandolfini) quite proud. But it’s the mid-1960s—both rock and roll and Vietnam are reaching their peaks, and guess which one is more appealing to Doug…

He joins a band with three close friends, starting his musical “career” as a drummer before settling in as the group’s lead singer. They perform covers in friends’ basements, but they’re actually half-decent and plenty driven, and the more they practice and find their sound, the bigger they get. Of course, they never really move beyond city limits, but you wouldn’t know it from the egos they develop. Predictable rifts form, and Doug needs to make an important choice to keep following this pipe dream or accept some responsibility—go to school, find a job, or get serious with his on-again-off-again girl, Grace (Bella Heathcote).

Not Fade Away feels like a very small movie, and for a while, its smallness actually works in its favor. There’s an intimacy here you don’t get from a lot of films. The characters are allowed to breathe. The setting is allowed to really take shape. And it’s hard to pinpoint precisely when things turn sour. The film’s intermittent use of painfully unhelpful narration is definitely a major point of contention, but that starts right away, and had the film succeeded, it’s probably a point that could have been overlooked (the “Vicky Cristina Barcelona factor”).

A bigger problem is the unsatisfying subplot dealing with Grace’s flaky family. Her father (Christopher McDonald — “Be excited. Be, be excited”) is a corporate goon. Her sister (Dominique McElligott) is a hippie who wears lemons around her neck. Chase, it seems, doesn’t have much interest in developing these—or any—characters beyond cookie cutters. The film basks in its setting, and as such, it goes out of its way to make sure these individuals fit their intended sixties stereotype to a T. Even Gandolfini, though he makes the most of a bad situation, isn’t immune.

Ultimately, the Gandolfini material works because he commands your attention. His character is no-nonsense (and nothing else, really), but tough love is his style (not unlike Brad Pitt’s father character in The Tree of Life). As far as the film’s other performances go, John Magaro has the unenviable task of leading a film while playing a real douche of a character. Bella Heathcote is flatter than a flapjack. Doug’s bandmates are all interchangeable. And Meg Guzulescu—playing Doug’s sister and the aforementioned unhelpful narrator—doesn’t show a single sign of life.

It’s hardly her fault, really, but of all the poorly conceived characters, she gets it worst. She also has the unenviable task of selling us on the film’s final note, which is simply ludicrous and merely confirms the notion that Chase cares not one lick about the individuals that populate his feature debut. He’s a Jersey boy, and he proudly puts his state front and center.

The film’s music is predictably fantastic—even the original ditty Doug and his band write. Chase has Steve Van Zandt to thank for that. Minus a few small pleasures, however, Not Fade Away is entirely unremarkable. It’s nice to see Chase stepping away from the sort of material he made his name with, but the step down in quality is disappointing. Not Fade Away is far from a bad movie, but it doesn’t touch “satisfying” with a ten-foot pole.

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