You could say that 1960s rock & roll saves the life of Douglas (John Magaro), the restless suburban New Jersey teen at the center of the nostalgia-lacquered coming-of-age drama Not Fade Away. And you can surmise that the same music saved the life of the restless suburban New Jersey teen David Chase, now 67, who escaped west to become a successful L.A.-based writer and producer of TV shows, then made the Garden State the center of the universe with his masterpiece HBO series The Sopranos.
Not Fade Away is Chase's reward to himself a transparently autobiographical work, his first feature-length film, and one that he's said he has wanted to make for years. (His consigliere on the project is Steven Van Zandt, he of the double-play fame as The Sopranos' Silvio Dante and Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band buddy.) Like Douglas, Chase was once a drummer in his own Jersey band, obsessed with the sounds of the early-'60s British Invasion the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, the Animals and the liberation those lads unleashed. Like Douglas, Chase was at odds with his Italian-American parents, who didn't understand their son's ways (and ai, Marone! his long hair). Like Douglas, the filmmaker was nurtured by a caring high school girlfriend. (Chase married his girl, Denise Kelly; they're married still.)
All these similarities are lovely, and lovingly enacted, with the kind of attention to the details of time and place and the glorious, evocative soundtrack that made The Sopranos so engrossing an experience episode after episode. The furniture in the family den looks right. The make-out sessions look right. (Lucky Douglas: The skinny, fuzzy-haired squirt wins over the girl of his dreams, played by Bella Heathcote, who's blessed with the cool beauty of '60s supermodel Jean Shrimpton.) But combined with Chase's tender urgency to pack so many personally meaningful elements into a timeline that can sustain only so much without lagging, it's the very episode-after-episode instinct that trips the filmmaker up.
And then there's the discombobulating, if exciting, presence of James Gandolfini as Douglas' hot-tempered bear of a father. Chase asks an awful lot of the forceful actor to play another New Jersey Italian-American hothead even one who's Mob-free and make him fresh. (Up-and-coming Magaro, a pale presence, looks even more nebbishy by comparison.) It's asking a lot of the audience, too, to look at Gandolfini and not see Tony Soprano but a different angry, beaten-down man who can't talk to his kids and bullies his wife. (Molly Price is defeated by the stacked challenge of playing such a dismissive cartoon of a hysteric.) Fercryinoutloud, when the old man is stressed, he sits on the couch watching TV and cradling a bowl of ice cream. Who do we know who used to do that?
The good news is that Not Fade Away the title is taken from a Buddy Holly song sends Douglas off into a happier future. Rock & roll is here to stay. And David Chase gets some well-deserved satisfaction. B