Not Fade Away: David (The Sopranos) Chase’s Directing Debut

David Chase, better known as the creator of TV’s long-running hit series, “The Sopranos,” makes a striking feature directorial debut with No Fade Away, a poignantly touching coming of age tale set in 1964.

World premiering at the New York Film Fest as the Centerpiece Gala selection, on Saturday, October 6, “Not Fade Away” will be released by Paramount Vantage on December 21, when “serious” films open in time for Oscar considerations.

The following review is based on my first reaction to the film, which I cannot wait to see again. The text of “Not Fade Away” may be familiar, rather simple, and occasionally too sentimental. But the subtext is so dense in ideas, so rich in allusions to music, politics, and ideology of the era that it elevates the movie way above the label, I am afraid, it’s bound to receive by some critics as “yet another nostalgic coming of age saga.”  Rest assured: It is not.

Set in New Jersey, in 1964, a crucial era in American politics and culture, the nominal plot centers on a clique of friends, who in a moment of excitement and inspiration, decide to form their own rock band fronted by a potentially gifted singer-songwriter (John Magaro in a career-making performance).

With strong critical support and the right handling, Paramount stands a chance to put this movie over among educated, older audiences (including yuppies of my generation) interested in American history and culture. The brilliant score and songs, which are integral to the film’s narrative and overall impact, should be helpful too for a feature that’s neither mainstream nor particularly commercial work.

If my instincts are right, “Not Fade Away” may become a classic, occupying an honorable position among others of its kind, most notably Barry Levinson’s masterpiece “Diner,” which is set in Baltimore in 1959, George Lucas’s still artistically underestimated “American Graffiti,” set in California in 1962, Tom Hanks’ 1996 debut “That Thing You Do” and Cameron Crowe’s 2000  Oscar-nominated “Almost Famous.”

At the risk of pandering to or offending my knowledgeable readers, first an introductory note.  The title derives from a song credited to the late Buddy Holly, and made even more popular by the Rolling Stones (and other bands).

As a director, Chase has made a number of good choices for his personal meditation on the 1960s and the role of music in shaping both personal identitiy and collective consciousness. The tale is set in 1964, a transitional era, after the Kennedy assassination, during the civil right movement, and just before the beginning of the divisive Vietnam War.

More importantly, with the exception of James Gandolfini, the brilliant star of “The Sopranos,” the rest of the ensemble is composed of young, relatively unknown actors, which increase the feature’s authenticity as well as audiences’ ability to identify or relate to “ordinary” looking folks.  Jack Huston, Will Brill, Bella Heathcote, Brad Garrett and Christopher McDonald are all well cast, and hit their marks.

Speaking of Gandolfini, for some mysterious reasons poor choice of roles, bad nanagement?), his big screen career has not been lucrative, to say the least. Though he plays a secondary part in the new movie, his presence is crucial to its success.

The dialogue, which in some scenes seem too diffuse and meandering, has a cumulative effects in the sense that small scenes and bits of conversation add up to an impressive vision that captures the era’s conflicting attitudes, challenging ideologies, differing tastes and values.

The soundtrack, produced by the legendary Steven Van Zandt, is not only dynamic and energetic (as you would expect from Chase and the particular subject of his film), but is also well integrated into the narrative.  This is done in a way that highlights the film’s specific issues, while also serving as a platform to a brand of music that doesn’t exist anymore (More about the music in a later piece).

In its essential materials, the film draws on Chase’s experience as a drummer in a band. The dominant character, named Douglas (John Magaro), plays Bo Diddley, the Stones and the Kinks at various parties, accompanied with his friends Gene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill).

Borrowing an element from “All About Eve” and other tales about minor players who get a desirable opportunity to prove themselves as major players, Douglas gets a shot at filling in for vocalist Gene, when the latter falls victim to drugs.

This unexpected gig also affects his romantic chances with the high-school beauty queen Grace (Bella Heathcote), though it must be noted that the sexual politics are the least developed aspect of the scenario, unlike “Diner” or “Almost Famous,” where they feature prominently.

Raised as Italian-American, Douglas is both a product and victim of his upbringing, and it’s a testament to Chase’s sensitive ears that he goes beyond cliches and stereotypes in portraying the various tensions and love-hate relationships between Douglas and his family. We don’t get the cute and sentimental scenes that prevail in “Almost Famous” between the youngster and his domineering mother (played with great panache by Frances McDormand).

In a funny scene, both parents, father Pat (Gandolfini) and hysterical mother (Molly Price) get to express their feelings about their son’s “outrageous” hairdo, which reflect the counter-cultural fashions of the times. However, deep down, Pat understands well his son’s identity struggle and his  need to become his own man, which express regrets, mistakes, and sorrows of his own youth.

Some of the film’s best scenes, though bordering on the nostalgic and sentimental, are those between father and son, in large measure due to the high caliber of acting and the chemistry between the two men.

The saga is sporadically narrated, but the voice over is not of Douglas’s, as is the norm of such films, but of his sister, who begins a s a minor character only to evolve into a more significant one as the tale progresses and reaches its satisfying end.

Technically, “Not Fade Away” does not feel like a first film, but it does betray the director’s TV origins: The narrative is uneven and too episodic, lacking a unified vision or tone. (The film could easily serve as a pilot for a potentially entertaining TV series).

Throughout, “Not Fade Away” walks a fine line between a familiar genre item and a personal meditation about the crucial phase from boyhood to adulthood.  Ultimately, though, the movie impresses in its large number of personal and idiosyncratic touches, thematically, stylistically, and more than anything else, musically.