Stronger on atmosphere than dramatic vitality, this first feature by David Chase (“The Sopranos”) is an episodic, impressionistic memoir tracing the maturation of a young man during the turbulent sixties. Doug, played by John Magaro, is first seen as a fresh-faced, docile Italian kid living with his parents and little sister in a New Jersey suburb. But after he becomes the lead singer in a band with his chums and links up romantically with Grace (Bella Heathcote), a girl from a wealthier background, he evolves into a long-haired, bearded guy with an anti-war attitude and a dream of making it big on the music scene, much to the displeasure of his burly, old-fashioned father (James Gandolfini).
Chase is obviously channeling his younger self to a considerable extent here—“Time Is On My Side” from the Rolling Stones’ 12×5 album, which has special meaning for him, is the song with which Doug gets his start as the band’s lead singer (after the usual fellow swallows a smoking joint and is suddenly indisposed). So while it’s not simply autobiographical, it certainly springboards from his youthful experience—including a love of the music of the period, which fills the soundtrack and adds to the period feel. (The presence of Steven Van Zandt, who of course had an important role in “The Sopranos,” was certainly instrumental in securing rights that would otherwise have been hugely expensive.)
But while suffused with music, “Not Fade Away” isn’t your typical rags-to-riches (and maybe back to rags) tale. Doug’s suburban New Jersey band never makes it past the local-gig stage, and is riven with personal conflict anyway. There’s internal dispute about whether they should continue performing just established hits or begin writing their own sings. Gene (Jack Huston), the group’s founder who was knocked from his perch by that incident with the joint, is peeved when Doug replaces him as lead singer, and is eventually kicked out of the group for his attitude, only to be asked to return later when the boys secure an audition with a New York promoter. And at a crucial moment the more cerebral Wells (Will Britt), who wonders whether they’re ready for the big time anyway, has an accident that temporarily takes him out of circulation.
Doug’s involvement with Grace has its speedbumps, too, especially in the form of her older sister (Dominique McEligott), a free-spirit and risk taker whose involvement in the counter-culture drives her hidebound parents to take drastic action.
But it’s Doug’s relationship with his father that carries the greatest emotional punch, primarily because Gandolfini carries such weight in every sense. The arguments between father and son are very typical of the time—a scene at the family’s Thanksgiving celebration strikes a real nerve—and when the old man is suddenly confronted with a health crisis, it’s played out naturalistically to powerful effect. The last scene between them, which could have wallowed in sentimentality as Doug heads off to California with Grace (perhaps to switch from music to film studies), is presented in a similar throwaway style, with greater impact because of its restraint.
The casting throughout is fine, with the young unknowns inhabiting their parts for the most part without affectation and Gandolfini predictably stealing every scene he’s in. And the crew—most notably production designer Ford Wheeler and costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas—get the period feel without exaggeration, with Eigil Bryld’s camerawork eschewing gloss and fussiness to give the images an edgy, unrefined look.
Ultimately “Not Fade Away” is a movie of moments rather than a highly structured narrative, and what saves it is Chase’s ability to drop in references—not just in terms of music, but of television programs like “The Twilight Zone” (which Doug likes and his father doesn’t) and movies like “Blow-Up” (which Grace likes but Doug finds bewildering), that resonate with the time. It’s a wispy, evocative piece that, like Ang Lee’s “Woodstock,” might not have much staying power but will speak to those who lived through the era it so cannily captures.