Young dreamers chase rock ’n’ roll across the swirling ’60s
“Not Fade Away“
Starring John Magaro & Bella Heatcote
Directed by David Chase
Rated R, 112 min.
Released Dec. 21, 2012
A group of New Jersey friends chase their rock ’n’ roll dreams across the pop-cultural universe of the 1960s in this kaleidoscopic, quasi-autobiographical tale based on the youthful experiences of its director, David Chase.
Chase, the creator and head writer of TV’s “The Sopranos,” is reflected in the movie’s lead character, Doug (John Magaro), a high school student whom we first meet admiring a shiny new set of drums in the window of the local music store. In short order, Doug meets up with another musician and they start a band, learn the latest Rolling Stones hit and start playing for basement parties, where he hopes to catch the eye of a gorgeous upper-class schoolmate, Grace (Bella Heathcote).
We’re never told a year, specifically, but we know the exact spot in time when we see a TV set airing tribute to the life of the recently assassinated President John F. Kennedy. And we also know exactly how fast the times are a-changing, in that same moment, as the camera pulls back from the TV screen to reveal teenagers, already shifted into the next cultural gear, dancing away to music of a new Beatles single.
“Not Fade Away” (taking its title from a Buddy Holly song) sweeps across a spectrum of music, fashion, social issues and plot lines, hurtling viewers through time as we watch Doug leave home for college, come back during breaks, quarrel with his blue-collar dad (James Gandolfini), and continue to plug away with his band.
Doug gets an education in more ways than one, paying his musical dues, learning how American rock is rooted in the blues, finding out how difficult it can be to keep a band together, getting some news he wasn’t expecting from his father, and playing the game of love.
Chase fills his story with an exhilarating rush of keenly observant, sometimes barbed, occasionally funny and often poignant detail, and all of it feels right. It’s obvious he’s lived alongside these characters and been in these situations. Having Steven Van Zandt of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band (and another “Sopranos” actor) as musical coordinator gives the project a girding of solid-sounding authenticity whenever his actors belt, bang and twang out a song.
The movie’s so packed with detail, though, that it sometimes seems like Chase is still writing for television, for a show like “The Sopranos,” and this movie is the highlighted, edited-down version of a full season’s worth of episodes. Certain scenes end cold and plot points hit dead ends, without resolution or transition, and some characters (one of them major) disappear completely…poof…with no explanation or follow-up.
And speaking of dead ends, the ending itself will likely leave many viewers scratching their heads. But keep in mind, this is a movie coming from the same guy who wrote the famous ending of a famous TV series that, famously, had millions of viewers wondering what the heck they’d just seen—and discussing it ever afterward.
Some people may be frustrated by its choppiness, its refusal to cop to warm, cozy and conventional wrap-ups, and the loaded question that it plops in your lap, like a stack of old vinyl LPs, when it’s over.
But it absolutely has its charms. That’s why I’m putting it down as essential viewing for anyone who loves rock ’n’ roll, anyone who ever played in a band, anyone who grew up in the ’60s, or anyone who’d simply like to see how a story that starts with one kind of twist—by Joey Dee and the Starliters—can end up six years later on a desolate Hollywood Boulevard with another, leaving us to ponder where music, and we, still might be headed.