Editor’s note: David Chase’s feature debut hits theaters this week, so please feel free to rock out with this New York Film Festival review, originally published on October 7, 2012.
Into a quiet moment between lovers, toward the end of his new film David Chase injects Plato. Introspective college student Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote) turns to her aspiring musician boyfriend and quotes: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” The line could read as an epigraph, the inspiration and core theme of the work. Yet, paradoxically, Not Fade Away rocks the boat significantly less than the 1960’s themselves, or even other movies that look back on this tumultuous period in the life of the nation. Rather, it plays like a form of American “heritage cinema,” to borrow a term from the Brits, fantasizing about a time gone by while carefully avoiding any of its real tensions.
At core, Not Fade Away is a simple coming-of-age story. Douglas (John Magaro) is a skinny white kid in suburban New Jersey who, more than anything else, wants to play music. He’s a drummer with an excellent singing voice, and soon he finds himself in a band. They play covers of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones at local parties and dances but dream bigger. As he gets older, the band goes through the typical trials and tribulations: fights over love, fights over integrity, the loss of members, and on and on. And, of course, he is simultaneously going through a youthful love affair with Grace.
Much of this is pretty old hat. Even his family dynamic plays like something we’ve seen before. There’s the warm-hearted but quiet little sister, the overbearing and anxious mother, and the hard-working disciplinarian father (here played by James Gandolfini, who starred for Chase previously on the TV series The Sopranos). Yet throughout this potentially tired narrative, Magaro keeps things interesting. If Not Fade Away succeeds at all, it is because of its naturalistic and sympathetic lead performance. Douglas is an excellent stand-in for the audience, crucial in a film that doesn’t seem too interested in giving much depth to the rest of its cast.
The women in particular are left without much to do, even Grace, ostensibly the female lead of the film. Her personal goals are hinted at, occasionally even discussed, but for the most part she exists in the script primarily to encourage Douglas and give him someone to talk to outside of the band. There’s a telling moment when they are both older, in a courtyard of her college. She asks him, point blank, whether he only values her for her looks. It’s as if she has finally been given depth, perhaps inspired by a discovery of 1960s Feminism. Yet by the end of the film one wonders if even Chase himself is only using this actress for her beauty, centering her gorgeous face in symbolic shots on the beach without giving her anything at all to say.
Chase also seems more interested in flirting with the real social problems of the ‘60s in lieu of actually showing them or relating them to his characters. Sometimes this comes across as genuine and subtle, best articulated in Douglas’s problematic relationship with the military. He harps on the war in Vietnam yet clearly doesn’t understand it, mostly just using his objection to violence as a way to get to his father and various figures of authority. In these moments Not Fade Away is aware of its small scope and embraces it.
However, it doesn’t always work that way. The brief moments of lip service to the Civil Rights Movement, Feminism, and Gay Liberation are all unnecessary, and feel more like obligatory shout-outs to social change than actual interest in the topics. The closest thing to the actual revolutionary movements of the decade is through Grace’s older sister, Joy (Dominique McElliogott). She took part in Freedom Summer, lives in Greenwich Village and hangs out with all sorts of “unsavory” characters. Yet she’s also mentally ill and easily written off as unstable. The very real conflicts, from those happening in the Deep South to those occurring just over the river in New York City, are rendered far-off concerns that only the strange take seriously.
It is not the responsibility of Not Fade Away to articulate the ups and downs of one of the nation’s most complicated decades. It is at its best when it knows this, looking closely at the life of its protagonist and his love of music. Yet when it tries to confront anything larger it runs into problems. Whether that ambition is in the relationships between band members or the impact of the great social unrest of the ‘60s, it falls flat. And, in a way, perhaps that belies the film’s very understanding of the music it so loves. This is the decade in which American popular music became political and took an active role in the struggles of the time. Not Fade Away would rather just dance. And not think about what it all means.
The Upside: Admittedly, the soundtrack is pretty great.
The Downside: James Gandolfini gets very little to do, and what he does get is well beneath his abilities.
On the Side: David Chase insists this isn’t autobiographical. He, like Douglas, played the drums in a band in high school. Douglas ends up going to film school. But no, it’s nowhere near autobiography.