David Chase may have left The Sopranos behind, but his debut as a feature film writer/director shows his heart is still in Jersey. That’s the setting for much of Not Fade Away, his autobiographical tale of a young rock and roll band that came and went in the 1960s. While it has nothing to do with his classic HBO mob series, the film still resonates with echoes of that much-missed (at least by this writer) drama.
Certainly, the presence of Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, will spark memories of Tony eating pasta, whacking his enemies or telling all on his shrink’s couch. Here, he plays Pat, the conservative, stuck-in-his-ways father of Douglas (John Magro), a young man who finds his meaning in life as the frontman of a ’60s rock band. Pat’s not crazy about the idea, or the length of his hair, or pretty much anything he’s up to, and he’s not shy about telling him so. The dynamic between Gandolfini and Magro provides the film’s most affecting scenes.
But there are certainly echoes of Tony Soprano in Pat. While the latter doesn’t kill people for a living, he’s another tough guy who, deep down, has a heart of gold. Tony Soprano (usually) came off as a compassionate father, and Gandolfini channels that inner warmth again here, although this character has a tougher exterior, and, it’s implied, can be abusive.
Chase’s first film as director also shares his former series’ New Jersey pallete of brown leaves and grey skies. Things change over the course of the film as Douglas’ band gains some traction and relocates to L.A. Along the way, Chase’s script hits upon many of the touchstones we’ve come to expect in 1960s rock and roll movies—sex, drugs, corruption, disillusionment. We’ve seen these story elements many times before. What sets Not Fade Away apart are the unique touches that Chase brings to these familiar themes.
While it’s far from a perfect film, Not Fade Away does get a lot of things right—especially the music. Supervised by E-Street Band guitarist (and Sopranos co-star) Steven Van Zandt—who knows a thing or two about garage bands—supervised the score and, from the looks of things, worked with the actors to make sure the band was authentic. They certainly are. They often appear to be playing live for real (rather than lip-syncing to prerecorded tracks), and they know what to do with their hands on the instruments. And they’re never too good—always a little rough around the edges, as the early rock groups were.
And Not Fade Away certainly boasts a crew of appealing and effective young actors. Magro brings a quiet soulfulness to Douglas, who lets loose onstage in a way he never can with his bitter, repressive father. Jack Huston is also very good as Eugene, the band’s guitarist and original lead singer, who never quite gets over when Douglas emerges from behind the drum kit and turns out to be a better vocalist and frontman. Bella Heathcote is enchanting and excellent as Douglas’ elusive girlfriend Grace.
Where Not Fade Away falls down somewhat is in its script. There are a lot of compelling beats here, but ultimately the story never goes anywhere, culminating in a final scene as enigmatic and anticlimactic in its way as The Sopranos‘ final minutes were. The film has its dramatic hits and misses, and some very compelling scenes along the way, but the end result for me was a feeling of “that was OK, but I’m a bit disappointed”—disappointed because I expected more from Chase, who I know is capable of great things.
Still, I think it’s worth checking out on Blu-ray, where the care and skill of Chase’s direction, and the bombast of the non-stop rock music, comes through clear and loud. I haven’t written off Chase as a filmmaker based on this movie; far from it. Even though it’s not the home run I’d hoped for from him in his cinema debut, Not Fade Away is the work of a blazingly talented auteur, and I’m looking forward to his future films.Buy Not Fade Away (Blu-ray +Digital Copy +UltraViolet) on Amazon