Review originally published October 5, 2012 as part of Film.com's coverage of the 2012 New York Film Festival.
David Chase’s feature film debut “Not Fade Away” is so affectionate toward its chief subject – the allure of ‘60s rock’n’roll and its capacity for both shaping and messing up lives – that you might be tempted to look away from its numerous flaws. Still, those flaws creep to the fore and refuse to be banished: The picture, which plays the New York Film Festival this Saturday, feels like a three-part miniseries shoehorned into one nearly-two-hour morsel – there’s too much going on in it for anything to have much weight.
The movie’s saving grace, or perhaps its crutch, is that it’s dotted with sound clips from the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks. Even The Left Banke has its moment. Whenever the dramatic momentum starts to sag or go all squirrelly, a scruffy R&B rave-up or Bo Diddley beat appears handily to distract us.
In “Not Fade Away” John Magaro plays Douglas, a scrawny high schooler growing up in suburban New Jersey. The movie opens in the early 1960s, at approximately the same time Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, across the pond, were just starting to trade Jimmy Reed records they’d ordered by mail from Chicago. (Chase dramatizes their first meeting in a brief opening scene, shot in mists-of-history black-and-white.) Douglas, an aspiring drummer, gets a chance to sit in with a band that’s been put together by some of his classmates (Jack Huston and Will Brill). He has eyes for a pretty classmate (Bella Heathcote, who somewhat resembles ’60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton, at least as much as any mere mortal could), but it never occurs to him that he might have a chance with her. Meanwhile, it turns out, she’s wondering why he never talks to her.
Douglas goes off to college, an opportunity his working-class dad (James Gandolfini) has toiled hard for. He comes home for a break with long hair and a peacoat, a development that displeases his father no end. Later, when he zips up a new pair of Beatle boots, dad refers to them as “high heels.” When Douglas informs his father indignantly that they’re Cuban heels, he shoots back, predictably, “You wanna wear Cuban heels, go live in Cuba.”
Douglas and his father will eventually reconnect, but in the ’60s, nobody wanted to cozy up to his or her parents. And Douglas has much to learn about life, love and the music business: This isn’t a rags-to-riches story so much as an aimless exploration of what it supposedly meant, in the ’60s, to find yourself.
“Not Fade Away” shows moments of life when it’s not working desperately to hit all the important ’60s hot buttons (the assassination and funeral of JFK, Viet Nam war, the Civil Rights Movement), none of which it hits in any satisfying or meaningful way. Chase made a name for himself shaping six seasons of “The Sopranos,” but a movie is a different beast: There’s alternately too much here and not enough, and Chase, who also wrote the script, fails to give most of the characters any significant shading. (For example, one young woman is institutionalized by her upper-crusty, straitlaced parents, and it’s not clear whether she’s actually crazy or just a nuisance to them; worse yet, we hear nothing more about her fate after she’s carted away.)
But “Not Fade Away” does offer a few strokes of brilliance, moments that capture the way lightning could strike with just the merest twist of the radio dial. Magaro’s Douglas is gangly and unappealing in the movie’s early scenes; later, he becomes a scruffy-sexy swan by tapping into the kind of bedhead cool pioneered by Bob Dylan. Chase finds a terrific way to pinpoint the moment that transformation is set in motion: We see the very young Douglas dozing and then stirring into a half-awake state. Someone in another room is playing a radio, and the sound that’s streaming out is clearly unlike anything he’s ever heard, unlike anything anyone has ever heard. It’s “I Wanna Hold Your Hand,” and he makes his way toward the sound in a trance. “What is that,” he says, but there’s no question mark at the end of his sentence. He has already accepted that magnificent song as his destiny, accepted the certainty that it will change his life forever. With “Not Fade Away,” Chase’s heart is in the right place; it’s a shame he keeps losing the beat.