Movie Review: Not Fade Away
Austin360.com | Austin American-Statesman
This isn’t the feature film debut we expected from David Chase, creator of the iconic HBO mob drama, “The Sopranos.” While that series was violent and often funny in a very dark way, “Not Fade Away” is sentimental and occasionally funny in a very light way. Which isn’t to say it’s bad, just … different.
The projects do have a couple of things in common: great music and James Gandolfini. The lumbering powerhouse of an actor, who portrayed the head of two “families” on the HBO series, is one of the only familiar faces in “Not Fade Away’s” cast of relative unknowns.
Based very loosely on the writer/director’s own childhood in suburban New Jersey, the film follows a group of friends as they form a rock band and transition from high school to young adulthood during the tumultuous 1960s. (Chase told me prior to his appearance at this year’s Austin Film Festival that he and his friends had similar ambitions but that to call what he was in “a band” would really be stretching it).
For such a sprawling era, the film feels small in scope, centered as it is on drummer Douglas (John Magaro) and his friends, family and lover. The drama comes from internal band strife — Douglas is urged to move from behind the drums and replace lead singer Eugene (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Jack Huston, unrecognizable with long hair and a pitch-perfect ’60s look and feel) — and from Douglas’ home life.
He leaves for college clean-cut and curious but returns on break as a pretentious, know-it-all, rebellious Bob Dylan look-alike. These changes do not sit well with dad Pat (Gandolfini) who had expected his son to join the ROTC and enter the armed forces. Pat is the most interesting character in the film, as he comes to terms with his son’s dreams and some long-buried desires of his own.
A side plot involving similar expectations-based strife between the free-spirited, mentally ill sister of Douglas’ girlfriend (the model-pretty and -detached Bella Heathcote) and her father is underdeveloped but interesting. Christopher McDonald, more of a TV than film actor (also a “Boardwalk Empire” vet), leaps out of the unfamiliar cast as the father, and not in a good way. A similar fate befalls sitcom veteran Brad Garrett, who appears late in the film as a record producer.
“Soprano’s” fans know how important music is to Chase, and the selections here, from ’60s deep cuts to original music written for the film’s band by Chase collaborator Steve Van Zandt, are perfectly matched to the film. The changing mood and escalating experimentation in the selections appropriately echo the progression and ultimate maturation of Magaro’s character.
Along with expert art direction, they help place the story into the proper decade, an effort that’s also aided by television news reports about Vietnam. But Chase’s incorporation of the war into the story doesn’t feel complete, and in lieu of a cohesive message, viewers will be left with an entertaining exercise in nostalgia.
It’s not a great film, but perhaps Chase is the victim of impossibly high expectations. After all, it took the director 5 1/2 years to get from his jarring, small screen “Sopranos” blackout to his big screen “Fade.”