Review by Pamela Zoslov
I believe “Not Fade Away” by Buddy Holly is the best song title in rock and roll. It's also the name of Sopranos creator David Chase's feature film debut, which refreshingly isn't a gangster story but a paean to 1960s rock and roll. That sounds promising, but the movie is a disappointingly patchy piece of work, entertaining in places but strangely lacking overall coherence. The movie does feature some great vintage TV footage (The Rolling Stones on “Dean Martin's Hollywood Palace”!), a first-class soundtrack curated by “Little Steven” Van Zandt (who played Silvio on The Sopranos), and a handful of arresting scenes.
Chase's affection for rock music was amply displayed in The Sopranos, woven into the series' ominous landscape, the haunting mood set by Tony Soprano driving on the New Jersey Turnpike to the sounds of Alabama 3's “Woke Up This Morning (Chosen One).” And Not Fade Away is at its best when portraying the electrifying effect of the early rock bands on ordinary suburban teens, with images of teens sitting transfixed by images of a swaggering Mick Jagger singing “I Just Wanna Make Love to You” on TV, or discovering Bo Diddley and Leadbelly and Robert Johnson through the British rock musicians who popularized them. “How is it the English knew all about the blues and we didn't, even though it was right under our noses?” wonders Douglas (John Magaro), the curly-haired young lead singer of an aspiring rock band in suburban New Jersey. If only Not Fade Away focused more on the transformational nature of music in the '60s, rather than trying to tell a desultory story about some sulky teenagers, it might really have been something.
The movie, which spans a period from 1963 to the late '60s, is anchored by Douglas' family, headed by gruff paterfamilias Pat (James Gandolfini, in a role that's hardly a stretch), who disapproves of most things, including “The Twilight Zone” (“Send that one back to the Indians!”) and the rock and roll that has captivated his son Douglas, who plays drums in a band with his friends. Douglas' mom is basically a cartoon, ironing clothes in curlers like Hairpray's Edna Turnbull and occasionally crying out in exasperation, “I'm going to kill myself!” and its equally unfunny alternate, “I'm going to slit my wrists!” A neighboring family is similarly lampoonish, but wealthier: the Dietzes, headed by Jack (Christopher McDonald), who loudly expresses racist and pro-war attitudes common to the era — not much shading or complexity in this screenplay. The Dietz daughters are pretty, doe-eyed Grace (Bella Heathcote), who becomes Douglas' fickle girlfriend, and her older sister Joy (Dominique McElligott), a budding hippie and conceptual artist who's branded a lunatic by her parents.
Chase manages to address so many issues that affected Americans in the '60s – civil rights, Vietnam, long hair, free love – but the film is defeated by its focus on something relatively boring, the desultory ambitions of a skillful but directionless garage band. In this way it's reminiscent of the inferior Sopranos episodes focusing on Meadow and her college friends rather than Tony and his entertaining mob cohorts. Only two scenes really capture the viewer's attention, and they seem like sketches for other movies: in one, Joy is hauled off on a gurney to an asylum, and little sister Grace runs tearfully down the corridor. In the other, Gandolfini's Pat, who's dying of lymphoma, has dinner with his son in a restaurant and reveals some hidden truths about his life.
Entertaining movies have been made about rock bands pursuing fame and fortune, but Not Fade Away doesn't seem to find much of a story in that experience. There's an interesting drama lurking in the band's typical rock-band clashes — conflicting egos, styles and ambitions – but they are barely explored. Early on, Wells (Will Brill) decides that Douglas, the drummer, should replace Eugene (Jack Huston, handsome grandson of John) as lead singer; Douglas' vocals are “more soulful,” and Wells, while a fine guitarist, is flamboyant and a bit of an embarrassment. (In my view, they should have kept the tall, good-looking guy rather than the short curly-haired nerd as lead singer, but no one asked me.) Later, Wells is betrayed by his ambitious bandmates, and is especially hurt by Wells, who's his best friend from childhood. There are missed opportunities aplenty here. Nothing that happens over the film's span of years has much consequence — not the demo record the band makes, or its chance to sign a record contract, or even the serious motorcycle accident suffered by one of the band members.
All of this —not to mention Pat's cancer and Joy's commitment — amounts to no more than a shrug, and certainly much less than the testament to the “enormous power of rock and roll” spoken of in the curious narrated afterword that closes the movie, just before Douglas' little sister dances weirdly down a Los Angeles boulevard to the Sex Pistols' cover of “Road Runner.”