Not Fade Away, sexagenarian first-time feature-filmmaker David Chase’s tribute to the garage bands and fuzzy ideals of his mid-sixties youth, opens with a pair of meetings: In black and white, recreating an historic encounter, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards bond on a London tube train over a couple of ratty blues records, then Douglas (John Magaro) and Eugene (Jack Huston) sow the seeds for a band and a friendship in full color outside a New Jersey music store. It’s unabashed mythologizing, executed without a hint of irony. If Chase suspects in the back of his mind that this second pair of kids will never hit rock stardom, he’s diligent about giving them a fair shot anyway. From that first meeting, Not Fade Away takes the business of being in a band seriously: the halting start-stop rhythm of rehearsal, the flubbed notes, the lugging of gear. This isn't a youthful flirtation—it’s a bid for glory.
For much of Not Fade Away, Chase seems caught up in that same bid. He looks on the film’s four young bandmates not with the tolerant affection of a nostalgic grownup but with the uncritical acceptance of a peer. One gets the sense that both filmmaker and subjects are in equal thrall to Not Fade Away’s magnificent soundtrack, a snapshot of Chase’s teenage years populated by cuts from Bo Diddley and James Brown, the Small Faces, and the Stones. Chase isn’t so much recalling this corner of his youth as he is willing it back into existence.
This gift for inhabiting the perspective of the young is Not Fade Away’s greatest virtue and its greatest flaw. It means that Chase lacks the distance to give us a clear idea of these kids’ motivations or personalities, to paint their portraits with the critical, penetrating eye of a disinterested observer. It also means that the film tends to shove its most interesting characters into narrow supporting roles and to turn a deaf ear on most forms of love beyond the love of rock 'n' roll. Not Fade Away confers such weight on Douglas’s bid for fame that for much of the film hardheaded dad Pat (James Gandolfini) comes off as nothing but an obstacle, and girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote) nothing but a gorgeous plaything, or, worse, a Yoko-in-the-making.
Eventually, the kids start to make tentative steps towards adulthood, and Chase, seeing that his heroes no longer want to be seen through the forgiving eyes of youth, obligingly shakes his critical faculties awake. Late in the film a well-intentioned aunt tells Douglas, who’s entered the post–Sergeant Pepper era bursting with high-concept musical ambitions, that she’s glad he took up rock 'n' roll—it’ll keep him young. “It’s an art form,” he answers curtly. “Does Dostoevsky keep you young?” We can’t help but chuckle at his self-seriousness, and we can almost hear Chase chuckling too—affectionately, but with a touch of condescension. Now that we’re judging both by the standards of adulthood, this clueless kid and wise old filmmaker suddenly seem worlds apart.
That distance might be a necessary imposition: it gives Chase the chance to spur Douglas into empathy, to make him see his girlfriend as more than the spoils of minor-league rock-star glory and his dad as more than a tyrannical patriarch. The breakthrough comes late, in the form of twinned moral awakenings too delicate to spoil: a tearful dispute informs Douglas that he’s capable of breaking hearts, and a father-son dinner suggests that even the most brutish of dads can have rich, conflicted inner lives. Gandolfini is a wonder in the latter scene, letting slip a lifetime’s worth of disappointment in a single strained grin.
Chase is famous for having created The Sopranos, one of the pinnacles of American television. That show was a great multi-plot novel, in which everyone had their reasons and no peripheral character came and went without having been given his or her own tragic arc. It was a show for grown-ups—messy, ambiguous, and detail-obsessed—and didn’t so much end as simply stop, leaving its characters to finish dinner and life to go on. Until then, it kept itself light, hopping from one subject to another without ever getting bogged down by a single point of view. What is Chase up to making a film like Not Fade Away, which for most of its runtime looks on its heroes so uncritically, taking on their surplus of conviction and their lack of perspective alike?
It would be selling Not Fade Away short to call it a sort-of Sopranos prequel, just as it would be selling youth short to call it an incubator for adulthood. Like youth itself, Not Fade Away can be insensitive; it can be crude in its formulations; at times its priorities can seem misplaced. It’s also a reminder that despite all that, or maybe because of it, teenagedom can be worth remembering, and even re-living.