In the late nineties and up until 2007, writer David Chase and Actor James Gandolfini were a major part of redefining television drama and what it could it be. It’s hard to deny that The Sopranos isn’t a direct influence on every high budget, high production value, prestige drama on TV right now. It’s also no small coincidence that most of these descendants are also based on heavily flawed anti heroes. And even though his first film stars Gandolfini as an Italian American in New Jersey, it’s great to see Chase move so far away from the kind of stories and characters that made him such a success, with his feature debut, Not Fade Away.
John Margo’s Douglas is the main character, the son of ultra conservative and old fashioned Pat, played by Gandolfini. At first out to impress his high school crush, Douglas starts a band with a few school friends as they near graduation and the movie follows them over the next several years of pursuing rock and roll stardom. But don’t let that description fool you, Not Fade Away isn’t That Thing You Do: Part 2. The success or failure of the band really has very little to do with what’s actually going on.
I hate it when a movie is described as a love letter to something, but so much of Not Fader Away does seem like Chase just wanting to share his love and nostalgia for the time, the music and the general excitement that seemed to be in the air. Even as someone who can take or leave The Beatles and the Stones, this movie and Chase’s obvious affection for everything about it, made me feel like I really missed out on something special by being born a decade or three too late.
Gandolfini might be the only actor I was familiar with, and that shows how great the casting is that everyone else, especially John Margo as his son, was able to hold their own and not be over shadowed by the very imposing presence of Tony Soprano. Bella Heathcote as Margo’s dream girl (and the band’s Yoko) and Jack Huston as the band’s insecure lead singer are both real standouts too.
I don’t remember Not Fade Away getting a whole lot of critical buzz when it came out. I don’t think it even got a major theatrical release here in Australia, and that’s a real shame. Obviously I have no idea how accurate it is to its period having not lived through it, but to me, it felt really authentic. Hopefully Chase gets another shot at a feature, and hopefully he finds a way to stick with a story this personal, but also finds one with a little more mass appeal, because Not Fade Away proves he knows what he’s doing as much with movies as he did with long form, narrative TV.
There is one really dud note in this movie, and unfortunately, it’s the very last thing before the credits roll, so it stuck with me, even though I liked everything that came before it so much. To close out the movie, Douglas’ little sister, who has been the film’s narrator, addresses the camera directly and says, “I had to write this term paper, and I wrote it about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power; One, is nuclear weapons. The other is rock and roll. It’s a question, I wrote, which one is gonna win out in the end?“. Now, a lot of people think the rat at the end of The Departed is obvious and on the nose, but it’s not nearly as bad as that clunky bit of high school level pretension.
Also, he scores this scene with the Sex Pistols cover of The Modern Lovers classic Roadrunner. If the song was meant to signify the coming of punk rock as the next musical revolution, why not just use the already perfect original version instead of the half assed, lazy Sex Pistols wank.
I really liked this movie, why did it have to end on two such shitty choices by Chase?