David DeCesare grew up in northern New Jersey in the 1960s with a love of the new music and dreams of being a drummer in a rock band. Fate, disguised as failure, intervened, and DeCesare eventually became known as a writer-producer for The Rockford Files, as the creator and guiding light of The Sopranos and, professionally, as David Chase.
All this time, though, Chase husbanded memories of his early manhood: the aches and epiphanies, the family tensions and pretty girls, and of course the songs. He hatches them in his first feature, Not Fade Away. Chase is 67 now, but the movie has the raw, artless, tell-all feel of a twentyish writer’s first novel — a disgorging of the good-bad old days in the transparent mask of fiction. For admirers of Chase’s achievement in turning The Sopranos into one of the zestiest, most impressive TV epics, Not Fade Away is likely to be a big disappointment.
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The blurred, black-and-white TV image of a New Jersey rock group, Joey Dee and the Starliters, performing “The Peppermint Twist” is interrupted censoriously by a sign reading “Please Stand By.” The emergency-warning beep accompanying the message gives way to the opening bass line of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” — Chase’s clever visualizing of the Plato observation, cited later in the film, that “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.”
That certainly applies to the walls of the suburban New Jersey homes that teenage Douglas (John Magaro) shares with his truculent dad Pat (James Gandolfini) and exasperated mom Antoinette (Molly Price). Doug, in solidarity with many kids of all generations, believes he’s a prisoner of conscience in a Stalinist gulag, where his parents serve as the uncaring guards. The emergence of the Beatles and the Stones allows him to express his protest as a fashion statement — poodle hair and Cuban heels — which suit his status as drummer for a local band, called The Twylight Zones, that includes lead singer Eugene (Jack Huston) and guitarist Wells (Will Brill).
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Movies have provided stories of bands that hit the top (Backbeat, about the formation of the Beatles) and of one-hit wonders (Tom Hanks’s That Thing You Do). Not Fade Away, as Doug’s kid sister clues us early in the film’s fitful voiceover narration, is about a group that became a no-hit wonder. The members practice, they play a few gigs, they debate who should be lead singer. Doug goes off to college — which, he father complains, is costing him $2,000 a year! — and finds an ideal snuggle partner in Grace (Bella Heathcote, the moon-eyed Australian lovely from Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows). Many screenwriters of less than hunky aspect, like Woody Allen, have paired their screen selves with dreamy girlfriends; and Grace is exactly that wish-fulfillment goddess in a grubby milieu. The prize daughter of a wealthy WASP family, Grace is, frankly, too good for Doug and too pretty for Jersey.
Actually, the Twylight Zones are a no-hit no-wonder, since there’s not much musical distinction in their cover versions of Rolling Stones covers of American blues songs, and zero chemistry among the bandmates. Magaro — who is going for the 1965 Bob Dylan look, but more closely resembles the Stones bass guitarist Bill Wyman — gives viewers little reason to watch him except that he’s the movie’s main character. Huston, the grandson of director John Huston and a recurring player on Boardwalk Empire, attracts the eye with his Jimmy Fallon vibe but never sparkles. In fact, no one in the band seems to be having a great time. They bend to their work, or what they call their art, like wage slaves on a North Korean assembly line.
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The one scene of musical magic in the movie (which is named for a 1957 Buddy Holly song revived seven years later by the Stones) comes from a clip of the Stones on a 1964 episode of Hollywood Palace, when Mick Jagger coos Willie Dixon’s “I Just Want to Make Love to You.” In that moment Jagger parades the danger, showmanship and bisexual startle that made people want to watch the Stones. And not the Zones.
The challenge for the teller of any story set in the ’60s is to overcome the familiarity of the time; even those who didn’t live through the decade have had its signature events, moments and music drummed into their brains. Matthew Weiner, the Sopranos producer who created Mad Men, mostly avoids the period italicizing on that ’60s show. Chase, though, thinks everyone needs to be reminded that national leaders were killed and that young men went to Vietnam, also to die. Aside from the plush carpet of ’60s songs (chosen by Steven Van Zandt, the E Street Bandsman and Sopranos cast member), Not Fade Away takes the laziest way of evoking the past: name-dropping and TV clips. The tragic, heroic journey of African-Americans through the decade is clumsily encompassed in one black man, a fellow ditch-digger on Doug’s day job, who talks of Martin Luther King and the other troubles that he’s seen and Doug only sings about.
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The young actors never experienced those woes, or those of the people they play. They spend most of their times semaphoring their emotions with cigarette flourishes worthy of Bette Davis and trying futilely to creep into their characters. For all the research they must have done, studying ’60s moods and mannerisms, they can’t persuasively inhabit the period; they only counterfeit it. The past, this particular past, is a foreign language they’ve learned phonetically.
That leaves to the adult actors the job of bringing to life the characters they play. Gandolfini, who this month has prime supporting roles in Zero Dark Thirty and Killing Them Softly as well as the Chase movie, is utterly convincing as Pat — and not just because most of us lived with Tony Soprano and his family (and his Family) on 86 Sunday nights over eight-and-a-half years. An Italian-American store owner who sometimes badgers his son with sitcom-dad lines (“You ’n me are gonna tangle, my friend”), Pat has come to realize that middle age is the time when dreams and illusions die. In a brief, wordless scene, he is alone, stringing lights on the family Christmas tree; one string shorts out, and his sigh suggests that this is the lives of grownups. When father and son finally powwow at a dinner for two, Pat pours out his molten heart; yet he can barely command Doug’s attention. If only this dad could put his declarations in the form of a guitar solo…
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Maybe Chase wants to point out the selfishness of the young, their obsession with breaking free, their love of precisely those things that their parents hate. In that case the movie should have brought some definition, uniqueness, to Doug. One adult tells him, “You’re a walking cliché,” but Chase doesn’t feel obliged to bring the truism to pulsing life. That’s what makes Not Fade Away painful, and not in a good way. A glimpse into the ’60s should give us not just the warm bath of recognition but the shock of the new, as least as it felt in days of old. That doesn’t happen, in a movie that evokes less empathy than apathy.
Many observers of today’s popular culture — and I include film critics — believe that most movies don’t come close to matching the drama, power and ambiguity of the best TV in its series form. (For their desert-island DVD discs, they’d probably choose Homeland Season 1 over Zero Dark Thirty.) The saddest thing about Not Fade Away is that it provides more evidence for the prosecution. The film had me wishing that Chase-DeCesare would put down his rock-star reveries and go back to doing what he did better than almost anyone: make great TV.