Not Fade Away, David Chase’s affectionate epistle to the sixties, opens not with its own protagonists but with a dramatization of the meeting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. Filmed in casually framed black-and-white upon a moving train, the scene recalls two uniquely British phenomena: firstly, the prototypical Angry Young Man films, indigenous to mid-century Britain, spearheaded by iconoclastic directors such as Tony Richardson and Karel Reisz and later adapted by Lindsay Anderson, Ken Loach, and other avowed chroniclers of youth; secondly, Richard Lester’s gleeful reappropriation of the Beatle mythos, A Hard Day’s Night, which, through its deft melding of against-the-grain humorists and filmmakers with mainstream pop royalty, completely opened the entertainment industry for the subversive wave which would overtake it by the decade’s end. (One must remember that “The Monkees”, the most blatant attempt to steal thunder from Mt. Beatles-Lester, begat the film careers of such Hollywood radicals as Bob Rafelson, Dennis Hopper, and Jack Nicholson; and that George Harrison mortgaged his home to finance Monty Python’s Life of Brian, an act of generosity that resulted in the founding of HandMade Films, through which he also funded, amongst numerous others, Time Bandits and Withnail and I.)
This preamble to the film proper does a couple things. Its casual mise-en-scene coupled with the audience’s awareness that this very happenstance will beget one of the most significant institutions of pop culture history attunes the viewer to Chase’s detail-rich style and engenders an innate investment in the minutiae of his characters’ journey. It also gives the audience a sense of the infectious that-could-be-us enthusiasm that drove so many young people of that era in particular to turn what their elders saw as delinquency into new musical, cinematic, and social art forms. Most importantly, by using specifically the Rolling Stones as its thematic bellwether, Not Fade Away aligns itself with a certain workmanlike sensibility, mythologizing a band which, more than most others sharing its level of renown, attested to the efficacy of studious professional rigor and sincere effort in the pursuit of greatness. They didn’t sing like the Beach Boys or write like the Beatles and they didn’t have a Keith Moon on drums or an Eric Clapton on guitar, but they had raw passion and limitless drive.
The problem with the Rolling Stones is that, sure, there are moments of musical transcendence which are utterly perfect, boasting songcraft and carnal power in equal measure, but so too are there a lot of unnecessary, uninspired, and sometimes downright bad songs to sift through in order to find the gems. Not Fade Away, unfortunately, is very much like the Rolling Stones in this regard: for all of its sincerity, skill, and abundance of fantastic scenes and performances, David Chase’s first theatrical feature loses most of its early momentum by trying to cover too much ground in its relatively scant 112 minutes. Chase gets all the details right, but by the third act it feels like he’s hanging them upon the characters rather than drawing them out; indeed, the complaint “Great beginning, scattered middle, ambiguous non-ending” may be familiar to many fans of Chase’s landmark HBO drama “The Sopranos”. But whereas that show spent six seasons covering approximately as many years, Not Fade Away attempts to cover the same span of time in under two hours.
The protagonist of the film is Douglas Damiano (John Magaro), a New Jersey high schooler slowly but surely falling under the spell of rock and roll. “They’re clapping on the ‘one’ beat,” he condescendingly observes of an auditorium full of his peers politely enjoying a local surf band’s performance; he elicits an approving wink form the stage when he rebelliously begins clapping on the upbeat. The Beatles come along and rescue the nation from the tragedy of the Kennedy assassination, but it’s not until the Rolling Stones turn up on The Hollywood Palace (where they performed their bluesed-up cover of Buddy Holly’s “Not Fade Away” for an unimpressed Dean Martin) that Doug makes up his mind to get serious about rock and roll.
Doug, a competent but unimpressive drummer, starts a band with friends of more or less equal talent performing covers. Their lead guitarist and frontman Eugene (Jack Huston) is the most accomplished musician of the group, but lacks much passion as a singer. When Eugene is unable to sing before a gig, the band recruits a drummer from another band and puts Doug in front of the microphone. He is nervous, but he’s soulful, and he attracts the attention of Grace (Bella Heathcote), a smart and pretty girl from an affluent family for whom Doug has secretly pined since grade school.
With a new bass player and Eugene back, they play a few gigs and save up money to record a demo, which becomes a point of contention when Doug insists that he can sing the songs better than Eugene. The band agrees, and Eugene concedes to let Doug sing on the flip side of their first 45. When Doug’s song receives the stronger response, a new drummer is brought in and Doug graduates to frontman. Growing out his hair into a Dylanesque mop of dark curls and strutting adroitly in Cuban heels, Doug looks the part; having Grace on his arm doesn’t hurt the rock star image either.
But this is where the film’s narrative starts to become somewhat unfocused. Had he stayed with the musicians, Chase could have crafted one of the best movies ever about forming a band, featuring none of the cartoon artifice of That Thing You Do!, the calculated pastiche of The Commitments, or the lack of revelation endemic to movies about real bands like Backbeat or Control. Instead, Chase tries to make a film about the entirety of the sixties, folding racism, sexism, homophobia, the Cold War, European cinema, psychotherapy, drugs, free-love, fashion, the Vietnam war, class distinctions, and the civil rights movement into Doug’s story. Instead of deepening the narrative, they threaten to overtake it, and by the time Doug and Grace set off for California in the Summer of Love, his band feels almost like an afterthought.
“You wouldn’t understand being in a band,” Doug barks at his mother at one Thanksgiving dinner, “that’s my true family.” Having been in my share of bands, of varying degrees of both talent and success, I can attest to the verity of Doug’s assertion. But there simply isn’t enough of the band being a band for the film to back it up. Aside from all of the sociopolitical content Chase shoehorns into his narrative in an attempt to ground it to (or to make it illustrative of) the times, he also frequently comes back to the tension between Doug and his father Pat (a wonderful James Gandolfini). Pat and Doug’s relationship is one of typical generational discord: Pat, a diligent provider dissatisfied with how hard he has to work in exchange for so little, is unable to see the ethic in Doug’s efforts to make a career out of music, an ethic — “success is ninety percent perspiration and ten percent inspiration” — passed down directly from father to son.
Doug’s relationship with Grace, too, vies for attention throughout, but her role is underwritten and her intersections with the band — encouraging Doug to sing lead, infidelities with other members of the band — feel somewhat contrived; like the film as a whole, her individual traits do not add up to a fully developed character. Bless Bella Heathcote, though, who gives more of herself than the role requires and steals almost every scene she’s in. “Plato,” she says at one point, before a pregnant pause in which she lights and takes a drag from a cigarette, “he says, When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” In this perfectly timed beat, Heathcote shakes the walls of the film, introducing a different rhythm, one whose natural cadences shake the overly articulated architecture of the narrative.
There’s an oddly surreal coda to the film, which finds Doug’s younger sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) philosophically pitting rock and roll against nuclear weapons and dancing in the middle of a Los Angeles highway, eerily uninhabited in the middle of the night, shortly after Doug is seen hitchhiking toward an unknown destiny on the same highway. The beauty — both cinematically and ideologically — of the image is striking; so is its incongruity. Here I was most reminded of “The Sopranos”. While many of my friends gravitated away from the show in its later seasons, growing frustrated with its leisurely pace, psychological bent, and willful ambiguities of both ethics and events, I admired the way that it not only earned its gradual shift into Tony’s deteriorating psyche, but also the way that its evolution from overstimulation to introspection to an unfulfilling denouement that was both anticipated and sudden in equal measure mirrored the arc of the life of man.
If Not Fade Away was a series, like the dearly missed “American Dreams”, or even a mini-series, like NBC’s underrated “The 60’s”, it could have been one of the greats. As a film, however, it doesn’t give its characters enough room to grow, and for that it suffers. Nonetheless, the performances are so strong and the spirit is so infectious that I loved the film, if only in spurts. So much so that I wish the characters were given more time to grow, to feel less like the sum of their parts and more like fully developed individuals. To David Chase’s credit, Not Fade Away marks the first time I have ever said a filmmaker is better suited to television and meant it as a compliment.