Saturday, January 5, 2013


My father used to be in a band, back when he was a young man living in Atlantic City, New Jersey. I don't recall the band's name, but my sister and I did hear stories of many of their gigs and experiences before they went their separate ways, and my father came north to be with his childhood sweetheart (yes, my mom), and a relatively "normal" life, which thankfully involved kids. That brief, music-filled moment in his life is the target of director David Chase in Not Fade Away, his feature film debut. Chase, who is best known as the creator and Emmy-winning showrunner of The Sopranos, attempts to capture what made music so important in the 1960's, with the emergence of so many iconic rock & roll icons seemingly at once.

Set in a Vietnam-era New Jersey suburb, high school student Douglas (John Magaro) and his friends decide to form a band, inspired by the rise of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. Despite the grumblings of his working class father (James Gandolfini), Douglas is certain that stardom is in his future, especially when a freak accident shifts him from drummer and backup singer to becoming the group's front man. But infighting, domestic problems, and the realities of the world interfere, and soon they threaten to not only derail Doublas' musical journey, but his relationship with the love of his life (Bella Heathcoate).

Chase definitely has a healthy appreciation for the musical arts, and puts it on full showing any chance he gets here. He definitely realizes and explores the music discoveries that made that period of time so great, from The Beatles' appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show to the Stones showing off for Dean Martin. It's not just rock that gets attention, but also R&B legends like Bo Diddley, James Brown and Elmore James who get praised as inspirations. The band themselves, dubbed the "Twylight Zones" (after Doug's favorite television show), also put on performances of sorts, with excellent cover and original songs dotting the film's playlist. It helps that the soundtrack is cobbled together by legendary musician and Chase collaborator Steven Van Zandt, who does a great job matching the music to the mood the director is trying to achieve, and the result is easily one of the best soundtracks I've heard this year.

Unfortunately, that music mainly becomes a cushion between the audience and the badly-told story to which they're subjected. It's bad enough that the protagonist is someone we grow to dislike over the course of the film; Magaro's Douglas is a churlish young man who does a few things right but most of the time comes off as a pompous - though growing - jerk. Obviously the movie is designed to give him the big revelation and redemption at the end, but by that point we could really care less. What's worse is that every single character and plot thread has been done to death in other, better movies. One character even screams at Douglas about his relationship to Heathcoate's Grace, calling the former high school loser and the former prom queen's eventual pairing "a cliche". What that person (and Chase himself) fails to realize is that everybody in the movie meets that criteria. We've got a diva frontman whose jealousy makes him go too far (Jack Huston), a scheming yes-man who's only in it for his own success (Will Brill), the aforementioned popular girl (Heathcote is at least better here than in the horrid Dark Shadows) and her psychotic, drug-inducing artist sister (Dominique McElligott). Then there's Douglas' family, a pastiche of blue-collar poor families from the era. Playing his mother, Molly Price wears curlers 24/7, goes outside to do yard work in her bathrobe, complains about her wealthier family members, and threatens to commit suicide when she's stressed out. I'm still not sure what to make of Meg Guzulescu as his little sister, who occasionally narrates the story and is otherwise completely useless (actually, she's useless as a narrator as well, but anyway...). Only Gandolfini is even decent, and to be honest you have to believe that Chase (who also wrote the screenplay) created the role with him in mind, as it plays to his strengths and nothing else. Nobody else comes anywhere close to feeling anything unlike cardboard cutouts.

For almost two hours, we're subjected to characters we don't care about going through motions and time jumps and off-screen events that trigger real-time consequences. The narrative could have been forgiven if the final product were not such a jumbled mess, but as things stand you'll barely be able to keep people and situations straight and people's looks swiftly altering in short spurts of time. The music covers up any connections that scenes may share, and while it's nice to listen to, I'd appreciate if it weren't used as a crutch. There are only a few actual "character moments", the most effective being a dinner chat between Douglas and his estranged father. Unfortunately, the scene only barely scratches any deeper meaning behind the characters, and any momentum it develops is quickly and utterly lost.

David Chase has often complained that he's stuck working in television, unable to transcend to the hallowed grounds of moviemaking. But if the films he's going to produce are anything like Not Fade Away - self-important, semi-biographical and thoroughly un-entertaining - then HBO was doing society a favor for all those years. Van Zandt's soundtrack is exemplary, and anybody wishing to relive the music of the sixties will probably find something to keep them going. But the fact is that those people already own these songs on CD or digital (and likely a few on vinyl), rendering the idea of paying for a ticket to see this moot. This isn't the film you are looking for, and if it is you might just be searching the wrong medium for your good times.


Anonymous said...

Hello Mr. Anderson,

I can knit you in or out of the Matrix.

The white rabbit

Anonymous said...

My faverite part of the movie, other than this review, was Bella Heathcoate, what a babe. How come you never review porn movies?