For a film that’s ostensibly set to the vibrant pulse of early ‘60s rock 'n' roll and blues -- The Rolling Stones, the early Beatles, Bo Diddley, etc. -- David Chase’s directorial debut, “Not Fade Away,” sure has a curious, circuitous and eventually long-winded tempo. Set in 1964, just a few months after the Kennedy assassination with Vietnam, the Civil Rights movement and the sexual revolution in the air, “The Sopranos” creator’s ambitions are decidedly simpler and much more small scale.
The set up is simple: The Rolling Stones make their U.S. television premiere on “The Hollywood Palace” in the summer of 1964 and three best friends from the suburbs of New Jersey -- Douglas (John Magaro), Eugene (Jack Huston from “Boardwalk Empire”) and Wells (Will Brill) -- enthralled with their swaggery blues beat, are compelled to form a rock band (Joe Patuto, played by Brahm Vaccarella joins later).
Chicks notice, the band evolves and dreams of rock 'n’ roll greatness begin to swirl in their mind. Meanwhile, love is in the mix for Douglas and the socialism and ideas of the ‘60s are encroaching on the suburbs of Jersey, but the stakes aren’t exactly high and it’s not as if you’ve never seen this story before. Nostalgic and constructed like a valentine to the 1960s, the decade, the music, the social temperature and the culture, Chase is fortunately less interested on fetishing the era than telling a compelling coming-of -age story. However, by chasing down and juggling several story lines that draw from this decade -- Douglas’ relationship with his girlfriend (Bella Heathcote), her own family drama that includes her drug-addicted hippie sister, the generation gap friction between Douglas and his domineering father (James Gandolfini), and the up and downs arc of the band -- “Not Fade Away” loses its own focus and becomes more than a little ill-defined in its presentation.
“Not Fade Away” is often unsure whether it’s a standard issue bildungsroman story something along the lines of “Backbeat” or more of a family oriented drama. And while all of these elements can easily co-exist, Chase seems to want to soak up as much as possible of the era to his own detriment.
And the cast... although John Magaro, Jack Huston, Will Brill are all competent actors, it’s unclear if any of them have the charisma to lead their own movie (and Huston seems miscast considering how great he is on “Boardwalk Empire”). Instead it’s Bella Heathcote as Douglas’ girlfriend, desiring to be more than arm candy and a pretty face, that comes off as the most compelling and star-worthy actor, despite the fact her character is written as thinly as the aforementioned description.
Also feauring Brad Garrett, Julia Garner, Isiah Whitlock Jr. and Christopher McDonald (another "Boardwalk Empire" alum), as “Not Fade Away” balloons, including the implosion of the band, Gandolfini’s dad character’s cancer and Douglas’ shifting interest to move to L.A. and become a filmmaker, the dramedy becomes more and more unfocused and the episodic nature of the story becomes more and more evident.
Blending various elements of that era’s milieu into the story -- the war, the civil unrest, the semi-radical thinking and the generational divide between fathers and sons -- Chase tries to paint a wide canvas statement of the 1960s, but ultimately delivers a mostly conventional coming-of-age story with a lot of tangents and detours. In fact, one might say it feels at times like “The Wonder Years” for teens by David Chase.
While former Sopranos cast member Steven Van Zandt serves as the music supervisor and offers up a rather well-selected curation of choice early ‘60s rock 'n' roll cuts (several Beatles and Rolling Stones tracks, The Kinks, etc.), along with R&B and classic blues (Leadbelly, Howlin' Wolf, and Chicago bluesmen), the music and the occasional vivacious electrical charge it provides isn’t enough to sustain the picture.
Curious is a “Twilight Zone” theme that occasionally runs throughout the film (the picture was once titled “Twylight Zones”), but is so vague and infrequent it doesn’t amount to much. Similar and concurrent is a seldomly used voice-over from Douglas’ little sister that ties into the fascination with Rod Serling in the film’s final moments. But this strange little coda is tonally out of nowhere and near baffling. It’s a magical-like epilogue that feels deeply incongruent with the picture just witnessed and leaves one scratching their heads. Pacing doesn’t help either. At just under two hours, Chase’s debut feels long, and multiple opportunities to neatly conclude the film are dropped in favor of chasing additional storylines that just serve to dull the overall impact which was muted to begin with.
Though not a poor effort per se -- David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” does authentically captures the heart and soul of the music of the era and the intoxicating/naive dream of making it big -- the picture isn’t exactly a remarkable one either. Somewhat wistfully conventional, attempting to cram too much into too little space, meandering and failing to create any kind of statement or emotional mark, “Not Fade Away” might take a cue from the harsh and crude Tony Soprano-esque father of the picture and take some shears to its shaggy and overgrown haircut. [C+]