One of the most eternal dreams of the world into which we are born is the dream of forming your own rock ‘n’ roll band. You hear a song on the radio, it grips you and you spend lazy afternoons and late nights imagining how your band would look, how it would sound, how big it would be. You never dream of the crash and burn.
The birth of this dream in Not Fade Away is captured in a couple connected scenes finding a few girls giddily dancing to The Beatles I Wanna Hold Your Hand bridging the way to a few girls smoking cigarettes and cooly watching The Rolling Stones sing I Want To Make Love To You. The difference is clear. When The Beatles sang “I wanna hold your hand” what they really meant was “I want to make love to you.” When The Rolling Stones sang “I want to make love to you” what they really meant was “I want to f— the living daylights out of you.” The well known question is raised - who would you rather be, The Beatles or The Rolling Stones?
Douglas (John Magaro), a gangly, acne-scarred teenager in New Jersey in the sixties, chooses The Rolling Stones. Showing off his ability to impersonate the big bop of Charlie Watts on their cover of the Buddy Holly classic Not Fade Away, he earns his spot manning the kick drum in a local band with a few friends that dream of the big time. They dream so much of it, in fact, that Douglas, after returning home from college with long, curly hair and a peacoat, announces his intention to drop out to focus full time on music.
This does not sit well with his father Pat (James Gandolfini), a mountain of a man who works six a days a week, takes pride in providing and still seems stuck in the fifties, unable to confront or understand the cultural revolution that is now walking up his very own driveway in “Cuban heeled” boots.
Not Fade Away was written and directed by David Chase, best known as the creator of The Sopranos, and one can easily detect the odor of autobiography here, a son who views the whole world through an artistic lens and a father dismayed that kids can now go to college to make movies. But Chase, to his immense credit, does not paint Douglas’s often immodest attitude as necessarily heroic and ensures he and his band pay their dues.
Douglas dismisses Vietnam in such a way to suggest someone simply repeating information he overheard. He picks fights with his dad and immediately backs down. He possesses no backup plan if/when his rock ‘n’ roll dreams go kaput. He dates a tough but elegant girl (Bella Heathcote), whose own plight is meant to mirror – not entirely successfully – the ongoing sexual revolution, only to initially mess it up on account of traditional schoolboy idiocy.
If anything, Chase has decided to cram in too much material, to tell the story of an entire decade and not just the rise and fall of an essentially meaningless band. Not Fade Away works best in smaller moments with exquisite attention for detail. It works worst in the way it constantly jumps ahead in time without any real markers to guide us, raises questions and then forgets they were raised (a father’s illness, anyone?) and often ignores basic bits of storytelling cohesion.
But the try this/try that slapdash structure, in a way, suits the protagonist and the film itself, which wondrously reveals itself to be less about achievement than illusion. Initially the conclusion evokes comparisons to the infamous “WTF?” conclusion of The Sopranos, before it literally asks the audience to answer an explicit question and then answers it itself without words. It could have done without the question. These strange images of Sunset Blvd in early morning awash in windblown trash suggest a rock ‘n’ roll apocalypse at the dawn of the soulless seventies, though the cocksure smile on Douglas’s face suggests the revolution can always remain alive in each of us.