Watching the trailers for Not Fade Away, one might’ve easily been led to believe that you were watching a reenactment of how The Beatles or The Rolling Stones came to be. Said trailers are all passion and youthful rapture as we see a group of teenagers declare war on the responsibilities of adulthood and try to embrace music as the one true lifestyle.
Then the trailers showed that it was the first feature film from David Chase, the mastermind behind The Sopranos, and things seemed to take on an altogether different perspective. More so when you see James Gandolfini’s famous mug. Will this be a movie about young mobsters? While the movie is certainly not its trailer, Not Fade Away serves as a wonderful example to analyze how we choose to digest popular culture through cross referencing.
The movie, set in ‘60s New Jersey, instantly suggests—at least to fans of Chase’s legendary TV series—that there will be plenty of autobiographical touches here, particularly because how being raised in the Garden State, Chase has become one of its most iconic storytellers. Quickly we meet the film’s protagonist, a shaggy haired young man, fresh out of college, called Douglas D’Adario (John Magaro). Douglas lives with his overbearing, abusive father Pat (Gandolfini), his mother Antoinette (Molly Price) and his sister—and the film’s narrator—Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu). As it happens with other stories of artists trying to “happen”, we see how life at home is a living hell for Douglas, who is abused by his father and has to deal with his mother’s constant threats of killing herself.
In music, the young Douglas finds the escape from his humdrum life and the inspiration to go after the girl of his dreams, Grace Dietz (a Bella Heathcote so stunning that she epitomizes every heterosexual man’s idea of a first love) whom he is convinced will only want him if he’s a successful musician. Douglas recruits his closest friends Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill) as his bandmates and the first half of the film mostly deals with their ups and downs, particularly as they change vocalists and importance within the band.
The film takes us on a ride along with the characters, as they discover themselves and go through one of the most significant eras in American history… which is why once again, we find ourselves thinking we’ve already seen this movie, or at least that we know where it’s taking us. With The Sopranos, David Chase reinvented a genre that had become a cliché, as he took us into the lives of these Jersey mobsters who happened to be much more than cannoli and thick accents. In Tony Soprano and his family, Chase found the essence of families and invited us, for one of the first times in television history, to identify with bona fide criminals. Without The Sopranos there’d be no Breaking Bad or Mad Men, so perhaps when the studio greenlit Not Fade Away, it was already implying that this film would revolutionize the coming of age story.
While Not Fade Away is by no means terrible, it never allows itself to become more than a concept that’s been realized much better in other artforms. The acting is sensible and efficient, with Magaro ultimately being too sincere a performer for his own good and Gandolfini simply delivering a performance that says “I showed up to work”. However, every time one analyzes the flaws in the film, one winds up inevitably comparing them to unfulfilled expectations. Would this movie feel as flat if it hadn’t been hyped as “the first film by David Chase”? Would the casting of a total stranger in the role of Douglas’ father given the film more “street cred”? Would we have cared more about these characters if we hadn’t been expecting them to say something extremely profound?
Approaching Not Fade Away with low expectations might not sound like an endorsement, but it’s certainly the one way to derive any pleasure from its conflicting views. If only as a way to enjoy it more, or at least to see any more depth in it, ponder on the following: Why does it get a strong female narrator who has so little to do during the running time?
The film is presented in a sober Blu-ray package with a beautiful transfer and a decent soundtrack that highlights the music. As in most music-driven films, the scenes where the band performs are the ones that feel the most alive. Also included are two short documentaries that chronicle the behind-the-scenes ongoings and the casting. Rounding up the set are a series of deleted scenes that contribute little to the plot.