Never-Was, by David Bax
Not Fade Away is the first feature film from David Chase, the creator of the epochal television series The Sopranos. At the outset, that show appeared to inhabit a familiar milieu of Italian-American mobsters, with the novelty of taking place in suburban New Jersey and the joke that the Don was in therapy. Cosmetically that was and remained true of the series. Yet even a cursory inspection revealed that it was a keenly observed and universal work about people in general, America in particular and innumerable other things. The problem with Not Fade Away is that it never expands beyond what it first seems to be.
Located in that same New Jersey but 30-plus years earlier, the film tracks Douglas (John Magaro), a teenager with a passion for rock and roll, and his band, who are destined never to gain success outside of the local house party scene.
Chase is ultimately to blame for his film’s lack of luster but he gets no assistance from his young cast. Magaro and his bandmates, played by Will Brill and Jack Huston, as well as Bella Heathcote as John’s girlfriend, Grace, are unconvincing as anything other than a bunch of up-and-comers in the year 2012 dressed in wigs and bellbottoms. Sopranos star James Gandolfini, on the other hand, is as sharp as always. As Douglas’s father, Pat, he sheds almost all of the intimidating power that informs so many of his roles. There is no doubt he is the head of his nuclear family but he is a man of far more modest ambitions than his other characters tend to be. Gandolfini also has a small but memorable part in this year’s Zero Dark Thirty but he somehow seems fifteen years older here.
Gandolfini teases as much out of his character as he can, elevating him above the role’s basic plot and theme usefulness. Still, though, he has to say the words on the page. One of Chase’s main concerns is the chasm between Douglas’s generation and his father’s, so he spends a lot of time – too much time – on Pat’s angry opposition to Douglas’s music, clothes and politics. It’s a riff on the 1960’s that we’ve heard before
Really, that sentence could describe the film as a whole. Scenes like Pat chuckling at a Rolling Stones performance on a late night talk show feel emblematic of everything we already know of the decade or, more accurately, its reputation. The number of transformations Douglas goes through in just a few short years – in appearance as well as attitude – may illustrate the roiling cultural progressions of the time but he is never anything more than a symbol where the movie would be better served by a character.
David Chase created what may be the most important, influential and artistically successful television shows of all time and his feature debut has been giddily anticipated by those of us who were transformed by The Sopranos. Tragically, Not Fade Away contains some of the width but none of the depth of its predecessor. Maybe Chase just needs more time to tell a story.