Not Fade Away does fade away. It’s meant to be an evocative return to the rock ’n’ roll turbulence of the sixties, with none other than Plato himself providing the (paraphrased) grace note: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” Well, there’s definitely a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on here, but not so you urgently feel it. Instead, the picture plays like an episodic exercise in sweet nostalgia. Coming from writer/director David Chase, the guy who put the Bada Bing into The Sopranos, that sweetness is a surprise. And an occasional delight. But ultimately a disappointment – this is a movie easy to watch and even easier to forget.
The irony is obvious. Having reinvented long-form television in The Sopranos, ushering in the current renaissance, Chase in his belated feature debut (he’s 67) has managed only to underscore today’s critical consensus – that the large screen has become less compelling than the small. The New Jersey setting is the same, but gone are his trenchant dialogue and evolving character arcs, replaced by little more than the basic tropes of the sixties era: you know, hair long, skirts short, war and parents bad, rock and peace good, the times they are a’ changin’.
Basic, too, is his reliance on the conveniently placed and programmed TV set, whose grainy images duly check off the iconic events: a President falls in Dallas, soldiers die in Vietnam, protesters march in Washington. Such a weary device – it’s become the Wikepedia entry of cinematic gimmicks.
More refreshing, and engaging, is the script’s twist on the old story. Essentially, this is a star-is-not-born tale as Chase reflects on his thwarted musical ambitions. His alter ego is Douglas (John Magaro), whom we first pick up in the early sixties. Still in high school, he’s an aspiring drummer and a frustrated lover, looking on enviously at the crewcuttedjocks with the prettiest girls and freely copping to his physical short-comings: “I’ve got a skinny physique and a scuzzy complexion”. Quick cut to that flickering TV screen, where Mick Jagger has an entire audience of adoring females in thrall to his skinny and scuzzy self. The penny drops; a wannabe star hastens to his drum kit.
A mere college semester later, Douglas returns with a mop of Dylanesque curls, a fledgling band that covers Stones tunes at house parties, and a laid-back liberalism that ain’t welcome in the family kitchen, which Chase keeps revisiting to pound home the usual domestic dispute. There, while Mom slips into a whining depression and his young sister looks on wide-eyed (she doubles, unwisely, as our voice-over narrator), Douglas and Dad snarl across the generation gap. James Gandolfini is the patriarch again, and a good thing too. The son may be the protagonist but the father steals the picture. Gandolfini rescues the character from stereotype, sensitively capturing the man’s own inner battles – with encroaching illness, with dampened passion, with stifling religion (there’s no God in this father), and, climactically, with an innate tenderness that trumps the toughness.
From there, the years and the plot both unfold as we know they must. The boy needs a love-interest, so Douglas falls for Grace, the beautiful rich girl (Bella Heathcote); the band needs its turmoil, so Douglas falls out with Eugene, the under-performing guitarist. En route, Chase stirs in a bunch of sub-plots – Grace’s older sibling flirts with drugs, Grace herself flirts with feminism, and poor Dad flirts with divorce – that only distract from the film’s ostensible focus and further clutter an already episodic narrative.
Happily, the sweetness has real appeal, and multiple sources. It can be heard in the music, a pastiche of golden oldies smartly curated by Steve Van Zandt. It can be seen in the figure of Douglas, wooden but at least a credible totem of the times – the idealism, the naivete, the narcissism and, yes, the hypocrisy of sixties youth. And it can be sensed in the atmosphere, in a period when a garage band was truly just a small break away from a big hit, when fame felt closer to hand and celebrity less remote, when the wall of possibility seemed lower and thinner and much more porous.
Consequently, baby-boomers of Chase’s vintage will watch this movie through the same rear-view mirror he used in making it – remembering their thwarted ambitions, their callow loves, their tough and tender dads. I know I did. And I know nostalgia gives the heart a gentle tug, until the house lights come up on the onrushing present, and nostalgia fades away.