Not Another Precious Time Circle
If it weren’t for the playful sense of fantasy and satire that licks through Not Fade Away, the weight of its pop cultural nostalgia would be almost overpowering. Every TV seems to be playing The Twilight Zone and most of the young people are listening to the circa 1960s brash new music or aping the mannerisms of the bands themselves. The walls of these suburban New Jersey homes feel like those of small prison cells. Everybody’s either resigned to living inside them forever or itching to bust out.
But David Chase’s film isn’t another precious time capsule. Here the young men and women exploring all the new possibilities of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll aren’t brave voyagers so much as they are comically clueless blunderers. They fumble their way forward, grasping onto the totems of the decade’s rebelliousness while the adults seethe at their children’s seeming myopia. Chase’s ironic appraisal of the kids’ ongoing self-invention and adolescent pretension helps keep the movie crisp.
Chase was a drummer in a New Jersey garage band once upon a time. His protagonist here is the bouncily self-confident Doug (John Magaro), a short and skinny Italian kid with an ever-growing mop of hair who lucks into a gig playing drums with some other guys from his high school. They don’t seem that serious at first, performing at the occasional house party and playing covers that everybody knows from the radio: the Rolling Stones’ “Time Is On My Side” is a staple. Every now and then, they jam in the basement of guitarist and original singer Gene (Boardwalk Empire’s Jack Huston), who has almost as outsized an idea of their potential as their other guitarist Wells (Will Brill).
Like most bands, this one—which can never decide on a name—isn’t created for purely artistic reasons. A languorous tracking shot along a row of high school girls mesmerized by the Stones on a TV variety show provides an obvious context. Other motivations can be found in the way that Doug and his friends study the sleeves of albums, particularly those of the classic blues albums they all know the Stones admired, as well as Bob Dylan’s records. Doug even appropriates Dylan’s Don’t Look Back-era look for himself piece by piece, much to the fury of his father (James Gandolfini).
It takes a while for Not Fade Away to locate any kind of plot hook. That drifting sensation helps the film knock along in a roustabout manner, so we might share in the dramas that seem titanic to Doug: following a coup within the band, he takes over vocals from Gene, and soon finds another sort of confirmation in the new attentions of Grace (Bella Heathcote, sunny and wise, like a less dizzy Heather Graham). Given the fairly constant misery of Doug’s household, it’s a relief for him to turn to another world, where the most important question is whether or not the band should start writing original material seems quite attractive. His mother (Molly Price) is a depressed sinkhole of self-pity, always grousing about their lack of money and blurting out, “I’m going to kill myself!” at the least provocation. And Doug’s dad is generally resentful, seeing every one of his son’s new and effeminate-seeming affectations (the Cuban heels, that hair) as one giant raised middle finger. In many ways, it is.
Chase’s looking back is more nuanced than might be expected from the film’s light-hearted opening (a fantasy sequence in black-and-white imagining the meeting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards) and occasional whimsical voiceover from Doug’s little sister (Meg Guzulescu). Grace also has a sister, Joy (Dominique McElligot), who first appears as your average full-of-herself college student, shouting at her father about his corporate job while sponging off him. But her insurrection starts to twist into the kind of lost-child madness that cropped up so often in that generation. She provides an alternative version of Doug’s trajectory: he’s ignorant about the workings of the world, too, railing against his supposed oppression. He tries to bond with Landers (Isiah Whitlock, Jr.), a coworker at his construction job, but where Landers is angry about the treatment of Martin Luther King, Jr. at a march, all Doug can talk about is blues records.
Chase doesn’t let the satirical angle take over what is mostly a rollicking comedy about growing up and striking out. Well before Doug’s band finally makes it to their first audition for a real New York agent, it’s obvious they won’t get much of anywhere. Given how reluctant the other members are to consider moving out of their hometown, it’s not clear how much they really even want to get anywhere. The band is decently tuneful but ragged in that second-string garage rock manner (believably orchestrated for Chase by Steven Van Zandt). Fame and fortune might not be waiting for them, but they’ll find a messy sort of liberation anyway.