2012 // USA // David Chase // January 3, 2013 // Digital Theatrical Projection (Wehrenberg Des Peres Cine 14)
It feels a bit ungenerous to criticize David Chase’s tale of a starry-eyed, college-age rock group in 1960s New Jersey of hewing too closely to the well-worn narrative formula of the Band Movie. Writer-director Chase, after all, makes pains to portray the tribulations of the fictional Eugene Gaunt Band (later the Twilight Zones) as distinct from those in the conventional rock-n-roll story, at least as depicted by Hollywood. Not Fade Away's adolescent narrator, Evelyn, (Meg Guzulescu) reveals in the opening scenes that her older brother’s band will never Make It. In this, Douglas (John Magaro) and his fellow Stones-worshipping buddies will follow a trajectory that is dispiritingly commonplace—not just among musicians from small-town Jersey, but pretty much all artists. Not Fade Away is therefore a film about disappointment, and about whether fame and fortune are integral to rock’s ethos, or utterly beside the point.
On this matter, Chase’s film is agreeably ambiguous, and the most fascinating moments in the script are those that achieve a delicious balance between straight-faced, simple-minded optimism and vicious satire of that same optimism. The film conveys both fist-pumping approval and eye-rolling disdain at Douglas’ routine declarations of “Rock-n-Roll Will Never Die, Man!” (or some rough equivalent), a pronouncement usually made to his frustrated parents (James Gandolfini and Molly Price). Chase and his performers aren’t always successful at maintaining this conflicted stance towards the rock cliches Not Fade Away employs so enthusiastically, but when the the film works in this regard, it’s heartfelt and darkly amusing.
This is the first theatrical feature from Chase, who is renowned as the creator and producer of The Sopranos. While the film is mostly unremarkable visually (and a bit too murky, lighting-wise), there are some moments of genuine cinematic verve. During a pivotal audition scene, Chase cuts repeatedly between the band’s performance and Douglas’ girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote) as she sits listening on the stairs—outside the room, where the arm-candy belongs. The camera pushes in slowly on Grace’s face as drummer-turned-vocalist Douglas pours out his heart in a Dylan-like warble, and her expression is a marvelously enigmatic thing. It at once says, “This song is amazing, and I am hopelessly in love with this man,” and “I absolutely do not want to spend my life waiting around obediently, smoking in the stairwell with the other girlfriends.” Another highlight occurs late in film, as newly-arrived Douglas wanders predawn 1968 Los Angeles in a post-party haze. It’s a fantastically moody sequence, capped by a creepy moment where he wisely turns down a ride from a Manson Family-esque couple. It feels for all the world like a 1970s horror film is twitching insistently at the margins of Chase’s 60’s period piece.
The primary problem with Not Fade Away is that Chase’s affection for musicians and this particular period in American history are so strong that he can’t sustain the narrative and thematic nerve that the story needs. The film is positively brimming with 1960s cliches, right down to the breakfast table quarrels about civil rights and the Vietnam War, and when the film fumbles the sincerity-satire balance, it fumbles hard. Occasionally, the story becomes downright predictable, exasperating, and even boring, as Douglas and his bandmates proceed through their expected arcs, while the adults mutter their disapproval at this whole rock-n-roll nonsense. There is even an obligatory concession to the Dark Side of the ‘60s in the person of Grace’s perpetually dosed, possibly mentally ill sister Joy (Dominique McElligot). The aforementioned Manson couple, glimpsed only briefly, leave a far nastier mark than scene after scene of Joy’s cartoonish, Luna Lovegood eccentricities and drug-fueled unraveling.
Ultimately, the film’s determination to tell an atypical rock saga is more asserted than expressed. The tale of the Twilight Zones is essentially the story told by every Behind the Music episode, save that the group in question never got a recording contract and never escaped the purgatory of friends’ basements and high school auditoriums. Chase at times finds ways to cunningly upend the expectations of this formula, as when the band suffers an apparent Duane Allman-style tragedy that u-turns in a deflating, oddly funny way. In the main, however, the film presents all the usual contours of its subgenre, and without the liveliness that might excuse such excessive reliance on tropes. There are creative differences, naturally, and spats about drug use and women and What’s Best for the Band. Most of the melodrama revolves around cluelessly pompous guitarist Eugene (Jack Huston), who dismisses Douglas’ original songs, misbehaves sophomorically on stage, and pouts when he is (justifiably) supplanted as lead vocalist. This hackneyed dimension to the story is wearisome, and ultimately dispiriting, given that Chase provides glimpses of a far more compelling and courageous take on the grizzled Band Movie template.