“We’re startin’ a band, like the Stones.”
I’ve never seen The Sopranos…well, not in its entirety at least, and that should come as a major surprise given my huge adoration for HBO and my being a native New Jerseyan. But, I still am a David Chase fan, despite my procrastination to watch what is widely considered one of the best television programs in history. How, you may ask? Well, his wonderfully quaint and character-driven network program, Northern Exposure, was a favorite of both my father’s and mine. The 90’s show played in reruns during my childhood, and my dad would tape the episodes for me so that we could watch them together. This was during the first few years of The Sopranos, which my father was a huge fan of and told me that I could watch when I was older. I had no quarrel with this decision – a perfectly reasonable restriction given The Sopranos’ subject matter – and I was very engaged by the oddities and uniqueness of Chase’s Exposure, which established early on my love for character-driven material.
Now, at twenty years of age, with The Sopranos on my endless list of ‘Must Watch’ TV shows, David Chase still hasn’t moved on from New Jersey. While The Sopranos ran for six seasons and Chase’s tale of suburban crime has come to an end, his jump to feature filmmaking still shepherds viewers to the Garden State. However, this time we are focusing on artistic youths with big aspirations living in the early years of rock and roll. But, this time, all of what made The Sopranos and Northern Exposure so great is virtually absent for Chase’s directorial debut is a floundering mess evidencing his struggle to understand the restrictive boundaries of movie making as opposed to television. Chase’s Not Fade Away has personality, and a terrific James Gandolfini in a supporting performance, but it’s mostly just a cluttered scratchpad for half-baked character arcs, plotlines, conflicts, resolutions, and artistic self-indulgence.
Not Fade Away follows Doug (Liberal Arts’ John Magaro), a 60’s kid who becomes enthralled by the revolution of rock and roll music, like all of his baby boomer contemporaries. Foraying into his college years, Doug pleads to join a band with his good friends and together they hope to make it big. As they continue to mature as a group, relationships with girls, families, and each other rise and fall moving either toward positive lifetime opportunities or horrible falling outs. Like every other movie about a rock and roll group or this rebellious era, Not Fade Away hits the expectant beats for its first hour and a half, occasionally warming us with some sharp dialogue and a Zemeckis-ian lens that brings us back to this special time, but it’s all pretty aimless, sentimental, and very, very empty. By it’s final twenty minutes – a detached, incoherent sequence of events that takes place in California – I felt insulted and disappointed. It’s a boring and uninvolving story that continues to pick the scab that’s on the precipice of healing; it plays out linearly, but fails to connect itself fluidly so it comes off as episodic, almost like a bunch of short vignettes with the same characters that amount to very little in and of themselves and are supposed to infer a change over time for the entire ensemble. In retrospect, the nicest label that can be given is calling it a poor man’s Almost Famous.
See, with that Cameron Crowe classic, you had heart, soul, obvious musical knowledge, period awareness, round characters, a focused storyline, and a buttoned up ending. Not Fade Away has unbalanced doses of each of those aspects, falling particularly short in its story, as previously stated, and its characters. Poor John Magaro, whose work in the underseen charmer Liberal Arts was effective, puts in another fine performance here but is let down by the slim wiggle room Chase allows his character. It’s actually kind of complicated, because over the course of the film, Magaro’s Doug does have a change in character, but it’s a jarring change because it happens so suddenly since Chase doesn’t allow any of the characters true time to develop. From beginning to end, Chase cuts from scene to scene without letting them breathe. Actions are instigated and interactions just get going before they are chopped and we are catapulted over to another scene. Nothing feels complete or progressive. It’s just chop…chop…chop. All of sudden characters hate each other, then they don’t, then relationships are shattered and then mended, then a character has a cancer, then there’s a motorcycle accident, then they’re leaving for the west coast, and then the narrator breaks the fourth wall and talks to the camera – yea, that’s the atrocious way that Chase has chosen to end this movie. It’s a sprawling character drama that lacks both good characters and drama. Chase’s go-to guy, James Gandolfini (currently co-starring in the far better Killing Them Softly and revolutionary Zero Dark Thirty), plays Doug’s disapproving father, and though his wiggle room is also unfairly limited, Gandolfini turns that completely around and delivers a charismatic, scene stealing performance. Given all of the film’s flaws, Gandolfini shines just as bright as ever becoming the film’s only remarkable merit.
In the few scenes that don’t break themselves off and actually expand into something accessible, Chase’s personality is written all over them. A wonderfully imaginative, black and white opening scene, which features two very young versions of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting on a train, compliments Chase’s talent for opening his work – both Northern Exposure and The Sopranos have top-notch opening credit sequences – and the scenes between Magaro and Gandolfini as well as Magaro and the gorgeous and fragile Bella Heathcote are dripping with Chase’s personality. But these scenes are pushed, and in short supply, in order to accommodate an appropriated runtime. Everything in between is without substance and wastes admirable talents like Jack Huston, Isiah Whitlock, Jr., Brad Garrett and Christopher McDonald. To have done this story and these characters justice, Chase would have been better off carving this into a mini-series. His understanding of episodic storytelling in that sense is benefitted by successful experience and with ten hours of television instead of two hours of cinema, Not Fade Away could have become fully formed. Instead, it’s just a airball of a debut.
Not Fade Away culminates in fan frustration. This movie doesn’t constitute any kind of loss in David Chase’s ability to craft characters or tell a story, but it does show that the man has a lot more to learn about the difference between presenting a story on the small screen and on the big screen. This film is fuming with potential because of what we’ve seen David Chase do before and the fact that it is such a borderline catastrophe is a real disappointment. Having directed a few episodes of his programs, his work as a director isn’t particularly bad at all, but we all know that his skills lie with the pen, so in critiquing that aspect, Not Fade Away is far and away the worst thing he’s crafted. Of all the phenomenal holiday releases, this one became the stinker of the batch.We can either hope that Chase’s sophomore feature shows huge improvement, or he backtracks and rebounds with a television series of some kind.
Honestly, either way works for me.
Review by Mike Murphy