Film Review: Not Fade Away

'Sopranos' creator David Chase's feature debut is an engaging time capsule of an era when rock music profoundly impacted American culture.

For anyone of a certain age who remains convinced that the ’60s remain the gold standard for pop and rock ’n’ roll music, Not Fade Away will be a gratifying nostalgia trip. “Sopranos” creator David Chase makes his feature directing debut with this tuneful coming-of-age tale, quite a departure from his landmark HBO crime series but sharing a few signposts: a New Jersey backdrop, co-star James Gandolfini, and a leisurely but well-observed approach to narrative.

The struggles of a young rock band have been explored before in movies like That Thing You Do! and The Commitments, but Chase expands that theme to create a portrait of a seismic moment in American society and culture—mainly sparked by the arrival of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones (seen in a “Hollywood Palace” TV clip in which host Dean Martin rolls his eyes at these scruffy upstarts).

Chase’s semi-autobiographical script centers on young Douglas (John Magaro), who is recruited by his handsome singer-guitarist friend Gene (Jack Huston) to be the drummer and backup singer for his new band. An insecure kid, Douglas suddenly finds himself taking over the lead when Gene swallows a lit joint just before a gig at a local party. It turns out that Douglas, with his natural affinity for the blues, is the better singer, and he and Gene eventually part ways.

Douglas’ sudden emergence as a charismatic front man sparks the attention of beautiful Grace (Bella Heathcote), who seemed so unattainable in high school. But his new look—a riot of Dylanesque curls, a long pea coat and high-heeled boots—vexes his old-school father Pat (Gandolfini), who has no patience for his son’s musical ambitions and rebellious attitude. The script takes a casual, episodic approach to the ups and downs of Douglas’ career strivings, peppered occasionally by more momentous events like a cancer diagnosis and a motorcycle accident. A subplot involving Grace’s wild, unstable sister (Dominique McElligott) feels tangential, but symbolizes the turmoil that would become increasingly volatile as the decade progressed.

Chase’s film is saturated with ’60s cultural touchstones, from his tasty music choices (also a hallmark of “The Sopranos”) to the JFK assassination, from “The Twilight Zone” (inspiring the name of Douglas’ band) to our hero’s head-scratching reaction to Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up. And it all ends with a Felliniesque coda led by Douglas’ younger sister (Meg Guzulescu), who has served as the quietly watchful narrator of the film.

Remarkably, none of the young leads (including New York stage actor Will Brill) had experience playing instruments, but musical supervisor Steven Van Zandt (of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band and Tony Soprano’s crew) somehow shaped them into a very decent rock group. Magaro gives a nice, understated performance, with the just the right blend of naïveté, intelligence and youthful arrogance. Huston, unrecognizable from the disfigured World War I veteran and hit-man he plays on “Boardwalk Empire,” is startlingly persuasive as a dashing jerk with an inflated opinion of his talent and smarts. Heathcote, last seen this summer as the governess in Dark Shadows, shows considerably more soul here as any young rocker’s dream girl. Gandolfini’s Pat isn’t that far removed from Tony Soprano the beleaguered family man (minus the bloodshed), but he finds all the comedy and poignancy in his supporting role. A scene late in the film in which he watches the “Bali Hai” number from South Pacific more than hints that his character has had some of his own dreams deferred.

As a whole, Not Fade Away (which takes its title from a classic Buddy Holly tune later covered by The Rolling Stones) serves as a vivid reminder of how thoroughly the ’60s shook up the culture, reverberations that are still felt and remain unsettled five decades later.