NEW YORK FILM FESTIVAL – “Sopranos” creator David Chase should be commended for choosing some of the most heavily-mined subjects in all of fiction for his feature film debut, “Not Fade Away.” It’s a nostalgic growing-up story set in the early to mid-sixties, chronicling—as did Barry Levinson’s “Diner” and “Liberty Heights” and television’s “The Wonder Years”— rock’n’roll and its countercultural appeal which swept over that era’s youth. There’s voiceover narration, although refreshingly it doesn’t comes from a wistful, Daniel Stern-esque protagonist looking back, but from his younger sister. There are countless rock songs on the soundtrack, and heated discussions about Vietnam, and hippie daughters that take acid and run away from home, and once-clean-cut kids sporting leather jackets and Bob Dylan hairdos.
To his credit, however, Chase (who also serves as screenwriter) mostly sidesteps the expected clichés. Before a Lincoln Center screening of the film at the New York Film Festival on October 6, Chase said that although the film is not entirely autobiographical, its central romance is partially based on his adolescent longing for a sultry teenage girl, who initially rebuffed him with “Don’t worry, time is on your side” and, years later, became his wife. The love story is played out naturally, with a notable lack of histrionics: boy (the Patrick Dempsey-like John Magaro) pines for girl (blue-eyed beauty Bella Heathcote), boy gets girl, boy discovers some nasty things about girl and yells at her, boy and girl make up. And despite Chase’s real-life happy ending, the movie deliberately cops out with uncertainty about the lovers’ future together.
Given what Chase was up against content-wise, there’s an astounding lack of overly familiar outcomes. After a subsidiary character’s gruesome motorbike accident, for instance, we await the sappy music, the tear-jerking funeral scene, the protagonist’s instant snapping to maturity and manhood. Instead, the character survives, and the protagonist remains just as shaky as before. And James Gandolfini, playing the umpteenth conservative, disapproving father—“You look like you just got off the boat!” he yells multiple times at his Rolling Stones-obsessed son—turns a tired role into a tour-de-force performance. When he throws salami off of an antipasto plate at Magaro’s head, or threatens to tangle with him, he’s a hilarious, bullish presence, a Tony Soprano without the butcher knife. And when he turns out to have terminal cancer and gives his estranged son a heart-to-heart talk, Gandolfini never condescends to the character or audience, the scene devoid of ham-fisted pathos.
The story to “Not Fade Away” is slight and episodic, but there are plenty of funny, heartfelt, well-acted scenes that will resonate not only with rock enthusiasts who grew up in the sixties but with anyone that’s ever tried to launch an amateur band. Magaro starts as the shy, awkward drummer of a nameless garage rock band; when the handsome but oafish singer accidentally swallows a joint before a basement gig, Magaro takes over on lead singer duty, and the band gradually favors him. His shifted status impresses Heathcote, who previously ignored him, but just as their relationship heats up, some of his bandmates reveal that they had past dalliances with her. Then the band gets a shot at stardom and, of course, shoots itself in the foot.
Chase is a gentle filmmaker, though, and there are no fisticuffs, no screaming matches, just life-like approximations of the dull pain friends and lovers feel at betrayal and heartbreak. The same subtlety suffuses Chase’s depiction of Gandolfini and his overdramatic wife’s (Lisa Lampanelli) attempts to discipline Magaro; they push him around and make idle threats (“I might as well slit my wrists!” Lampanelli screeches in the film’s funniest scene) but they don’t really stand in his way. There’s no “Dead Poets Society”-like tragedy in “Not Fade Away,” just a few bad patches that the characters overcome with a minimum of drama.
The problem with Chase’s approach is that by avoiding platitudes, he’s taken some of the drama out of his own work. Scenes end, happily, without forced catharsis, but they also seem choppily edited, unfulfilled. “Not Fade Away” could almost stand to be more manipulative; the characters and their problems are amusing and sympathetic, but they don’t grip you, or stay with you, the way “Diner’s” malcontents did.
This film premiered at the New York Film Festival on October 6th; a limited theatrical release is scheduled for December 21st. This year marks the fiftieth edition of this festival.