David Chase’s The Sopranos was a titanic television achievement, a violent, rich soap opera centered on a New Jersey crime family, adroitly crossing into the areas of everyday life of “civilians” and finding common cause in the political, familial, and cultural. But Chase was more an organizer of talent than a creator – he wrote very few of the episodes and only directed two. This is not a knock, but it may be relevant in evaluating Chase’s first underwhelming feature length film, Not Fade Away.
The picture opens with the chance first meeting of Keith Richards and Mick Jagger but quickly swings back to 1960s New Jersey, where another band is forming. Chase captures the awkwardness of the early house show; the various personalities (the guitarist who always needs more time for the band to be “ready” and the jealous former frontman, sidelined to back-up because of a weaker voice); and the juice of a well-played song.
But just when you think the story might go somewhere, Chase reverts back to the lead singer’s (James Magaro) depressing home life, where his dying father (James Gandolfini) harangues him for his long hair and his mother kvetches in full Livia Soprano mode. When we get back to the incremental steps of the band, we are again diverted to the domestic woes of Magaro’s girlfriend (Bella Heathcoate) and her own miserable homelife (her Dad is a scotch-swilling GOP square and her sister is a free spirit soon to be forcibly institutionalized).
The leads are weak. As the band’s budding lead singer, Magaro provides no more than smarm and edge, though he performs a convincing transformation from dork to Dylanesque cool. His mercurial girlfriend Heathcoate is leaden and charmless.
Worse, very little happens in this dark (and by dark, I mean inexplicably dimly lit, as if the 60s is best evoked by dingy exposition), moody, mostly joyless picture. We get some affecting vignettes and then what feels like filler after there is no follow up. The end is a preposterous paen to the power of rock n’ roll that is more peculiar than poignant.*
That said, had this been the first two episodes of a miniseries, who knows? I certainly would have continued to watch.
*. Having just read this sentence, I am forced to add “so put that in your pipe and puff on it, Pancho.”