Not Fade Away
It’s been a number of years now since The Soprano’s ended its final season, setting in motion the television revolution that itself may now already be over and we’re still yet to see the next step: that wave come, crested and crashed into the shore in the time between it’s creator David Chase’s projects. Honesty it seemed for a while there that Chase was going to do just what this film’s title suggests against, disappear into the abyss. Thankfully though after a well deserved rest he instead made the move over to writing and directing movies.
This premiere attempt at making a picture perhaps his more personal – and possibly autobiographical – project yet. You’d think that this would be a major cultural event but be it in television or cinema David Chase is a divisive man and that seems to have spoiled this film’s chances, his film having come, gone and already almost faded away into polarized disagreement mere weeks after its release. A shame, but one I can certainly understand.
“This is a test.”
That Chase would use his newfound clout to transfer to cinema should come as no surprise to those who know him well or follow him closely; despite his success on the small-screen he has never made it a secret that the big one is actually his preferred place to tell a story. The story of Not Fade Away strongly cements his second choice as songs, that music is to him the next best medium, showing as it does the forming of a small rock band during the nineteen-sixties. If that sounds a little too simple for the man that made The Sopranos, the first few minutes set things straight. The film opens with a test pattern (in an obvious reference to the infamous episode of the same name), the digital whines and whinnies slowly shifting into the opening strains of The Stone’s Satisfaction as the picture flickers to a dreamlike, monotone reenactment of when Keith and Mick first met. It’s a test to ward off those not used to the weird, saying “only if you like this will you like the film that follows”.
“Time is on your side.”
That film though is actually far more straightforward than this sequence, or the structure that it introduces ( the film sort-of a story told by the protagonists observant younger sister), suggests. The story is actually a straightforward re-telling of all the old rock’n’roll tropes – though, SPOILER, minus any of the satisfaction – but it is both how and when they are told that sets Don’t Fade Away apart from its ilk. Mad Men‘s Matt Weiner came from Chase’s seed, finding his feet as a staff writer on The Soprano’s but here Chase is travelling in territory pioneered by his progeny ( one of the characters is even an ad man, in yet another clever call out). Chase’s treatment of the era though is about as drastically different from Matt’s as you can get: he uses all of its famous songs in the soundtrack and centres his story around all the famous events in the era. This though is less a stylistic choice of its own and more symptomatic of others that he has made elsewhere;one that makes the movie magical and one that almost tears it apart.
“Film and music are the only two mediums that take place in elapsed time.”
Fade Away is another story of two families dueling over control of a single man, though instead of the mob that second slot is held by mods and it is a son, not a father on whom the focus falls. John Magaro, a relative unknown who I recognized only for his short but strong turn in the recent Liberal Arts, landed that lead role and does a more than decent job of its many colors and haircuts; quite naturally aging from his early teens to his late twenties as the tale is told; a relatable lad with a believable rebel streak. Gandolfini returns to play the protagonists out of touch patriarch and like Tony did his character bristles, intentionally, for most of the film but by its end he has both the best feeling and most heartbreaking moments of the movie in his reel. Jack Huston – vet of another show spawned from Chase’s seed Boardwalk Empire – is unrecognizable but unbelievably good as the band’s Paul McCartney, the singer shoved out of the limelight by the shy, second stringer who turns out to be a decent singer and a damn good songwrite. Local Bella Heathcote redeems her recent run in with Tim Burton by bringing personality and not just pale skin to her perky and pretentious love interest.
Given the literal length of its story this film is very short; a mere ninety odd minutes is used to cover years in the life of four men and their families, but worse than that the scenes filmed are often frustratingly inconsequential. The script that Chase assembled to express all of the aforementioned elements simply isn’t cinematic in its construction, in fact its so episodic that it almost counts as a series unto itself; but without the time TV affords them to breathe this structure simply strangles the stories characters. A lot of the tales told here are admittedly quite cliche and familiar, so we can fill in the blanks with some ease, but this is an idea I can only ever support intellectually, emotionally it cuts my connection completely.
“What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens and there’s no orchestra to tell you ‘Watch out! This guys gonna get killed.'”
Thankfully then there is something in this film that can pull me back in ( just when I thought I was out) within seconds and that is the soundtrack. Steve Van Zandt does an amazing job of assembling perhaps the most expensive soundtrack ever ( Ten percent of the films total budget) and the actors are believable as both a bad and a not-so-bad sixties rock band; so every scene sounds superb. It is more than that though. Music in this film is everything, it tells the story more than the character’s words or actions do. The tone, the tempo, the tenacity and yes the text of the lyrics all speak deeply about what is occurring in the scene beneath the song, but in a subtler way then that may suggest; these songs aren’t hammering home a point already made like they are sometimes used to do, they are alone in making it. This is a unique approach but a flawed one, it leaves the film too flimsy to truly stand, the characters too un-understood to be cared about no matter how strong the style.
We’re this the work of some kid not so far out of his twenties himself – the debut of a new director, something shot by a gang of friends, garage cinema – then it would have been much more well received then it is. There would have been praise heaped upon the acting, some of their subtle signs, and on the direction, the sound and some of the tricky moments of style, but the petering out of the plot would be seen as poor rather than provocative and the ending pretentious rather than poor. The thing is though Not Fade Away isn’t the foundation of a new talent, its the work of a well-experienced veteran on his way out of the industry and so although I may be willing to give him the benefit of the doubt on some fronts, quite frankly I expect better on most others, because I have seen him do just that in the past. Though that he could, at sixty-eight, still capture the spirit and verve of youth in film-form still says something.