Review by Richard Brody
Earlier this year, David Chase’s much anticipated cinematic directorial debut came and left Nippertown movie theaters so quickly that it lent more than a little irony to its title, “Not Fade Away.” The film that cost $20 million to make grossed a little more than half a million on its initial theatrical run. How did this happen? The absence of both special effects and continuous high-speed action probably played a role. Some might have stayed away because they assumed that it was just “another boomer movie,” and we have been there and done that. There are those who felt that Chase used so many cultural/historical events to both mark the passage of time and provide context that the story became too diffuse. And then there was the publicity – wait, was there any?
Let me tell you why I really liked this movie: it felt real. The characters were not always likeable, but the words they spoke, their emotional resonance and behavior never rang false. Life is messy. It is not linear, and we frequently don’t grasp how the pieces fit together. And another reason is the music. In addition to some of the predictable selections, there are songs by Lead Belly, Robert Johnson and Elmore James, plus any soundtrack that has Tracy Nelson singing “Down So Low” is a winner for me.
The film, set in suburban New Jersey, opens in late 1963 at the intersection of the JFK assassination and America’s introduction to the Beatles. The latter was among the early footsteps that would become a stampede called “The British Invasion” that dramatically altered the soundscape of popular music and gave rise to more garage, cellar and attic rock ‘n’ roll bands than were countable. One of the adolescents who was swept away by this musical tide is the film’s protagonist Douglas (John Magaro), a drummer who is asked to join a band that wants to follow the lead of the Beatles and the Stones. Chase does a good job of describing the idealism, naiveté, arrogance, stubbornness and egocentrism that initially brings the band together, but ultimately pulls them apart. Major credit also goes to Steve Van Zandt who served many functions in the production of the film, one of them being musical boot camp instructor for the young actors. And his effort paid huge dividends. The band members look like they are playing the music, and John Magaro – who really does the singing – is better than good.
Over the four-year period of the film, band members come and go but the trio of Douglas; Eugene (Jack Huston), the band’s leader, vocalist and lead guitar player; and Wells (Will Brill) on rhythm guitar remain as the core. During one scene as the band prepares to play at a party, Eugene attempts to show the others his acumen at improvising a roach holder by using a toilet paper tube. The result is the inhalation of a lit joint that burns his throat and renders him useless for the evening’s performance.
The band has a choice to either not perform or have Douglas take over the vocals. They choose the latter, and Douglas delivers a passionate “Time Is on My Side” that draws the admiration of all the females in attendance, including his high school crush, Grace (Bella Heathcote), and the derision of the jocks that recognize they are no longer the only game in town. Douglas gains both confidence in his vocal ability and a girlfriend, but the band, and particularly Eugene, is thrown off balance. Who should be the lead singer? Should the band be satisfied with performing covers or writing their own material? Douglas has been writing and wants to do original material, but Eugene is sold on sticking to covers; “that’s how the Stones and the Beatles started.”
This is not “Almost Famous,” so the band does not land on the cover of Rolling Stone, but we do get to hear them perform their original “The Saint Valentine’s Day Massacre.” If it sounds like a lost Springsteen song, that might be a result of Steven Van Zandt’s influence (as both the songwriter and guitar player) and the accompaniment of Max Weinberg on drums with Gary Talent on bass. Magaro, who provides the vocals, makes you believe this band could make it. However, a motorcycle accident that will put the band on hiatus for up to a year, coupled with conflicts among the band members and Douglas’s growing restlessness, results in his decision to leave for L.A. with Grace.
If the music is the heart of the film, the soul of it resides in the relationship between Douglas and his first generation Italian-American father, Pat (James Gandolfini). Pat’s small business, built on his relentless work ethic, has taken his family from their poor beginning to a small suburban home of their own. He tries to explain to his college freshman son that “achieving your goals is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration.” You have to work hard for what you get. What Douglas sees as his right – pursue what you love, in this case the music – his father views as a privilege made possible by all that he has sacrificed to move his family into the middle class. Pat views his son’s dream as a refutation of the beliefs and values that he tried to instill. He mocks Douglas’s mod look that features long curly Dylanesque hair and Cuban heel boots by telling him, “You look like you just got off the boat.”
The tension between the depression-era father and the son who has benefitted from post-World War II prosperity is capped by a brief physical scuffle that follows a Douglas comment at the dinner table, “Vietnam is ridiculous.” The dialogue for these scenes is very well written and magnificently acted by Mr. Magaro and Mr. Gandolfini. Their interaction provides a small window into how the changing cultural landscape was entering many American homes and dividing families. Later in the film, there is a scene of father and son having dinner together where it is evident that the father recognizes that his son should be treated like a man, even if Douglas is not exactly the man that Pat had in mind. Douglas, who heard from a recording executive almost the same words that his father spoke about inspiration and perspiration, is beginning to look at Pat as a man who might know something. We last see the father and son in juxtaposed scenes – Douglas looking at the glimmering ocean waters as he arrives in L.A. to fulfill his dreams, as his father, at home in snowy New Jersey, wistfully recognizes his never realized dreams as he watches the “Bali Hai” scene from “South Pacific” on television.
The movie moves to its conclusion as Douglas leaves a party in the L.A. hills. We see him hitchhiking on dark, empty downtown L.A. streets. He is offered a ride by a strange looking couple but declines. Is this Charlie Manson looking for recruits? We leave him on the road with a faint smile on his face and the Sex Pistols wailing away on Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner.”
Chase has crammed a lot of the cultural events and changes that occurred during the film’s time period including political assassination, war, class, race, gender and pop culture. He doesn’t beat you over the head with them or try to make a particular point. He allows them simply to be part of the narrative’s fabric, because without them he couldn’t tell this story.