Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Unsung!: Not Fade Away

Remember David Chase? The Sopranos' David Chase? What’s he been up to lately?

Not Fade Away, David Chase’s theatrical debut, came and went in a heartbeat, proving that even though we may have more screens than ever before, what is the point if Pain & Gain or Iron Man 3 are playing on three quarters of them? I am glad that I scurried to my local multiplex to see Not Fade Away last October because it was gone within a week. Can theater chains not devote at least one screen at the 30-plex to films that might need a little extra time? Some films need time to grow their audiences; if films like Office Space or Idiocracy had been released in today’s market, they would have just disappeared. Hollywood’s focus on the big opening weekend ultimately deprives studios of revenue from all of the films that do not attain that vaunted #1 status.

THE PLOT IN BRIEF: Douglas (John Magaro) joins a rock band started by his friend, Gene (Jack Huston). It quickly becomes obvious to everyone but Gene that Douglas is the most talented member of the band, and this causes friction between the two. The nascent band goes through many trials and tribulations grubbing for gigs and trying to get their music heard. Douglas successfully courts Grace (Bella Heathcoate), but has trouble hanging on to her. He also experiences much friction with his father Pat (James Gandolfini). Romances and friends come and go.
John Magaro is certainly an unconventional leading man. He does a good job of both carrying the film and giving a nuanced and understated performance, which is a tricky balancing act for even seasoned performers. We never catch him “acting.” His casting reminds me of the then-unconventional casting of Dustin Hoffman in The Graduate.

As a big fan of Jack Huston on Boardwalk Empire, it was interesting to finally see him act with both eyes (his character on Boardwalk is a World War I vet with half a face). His character here could not be more different, and Huston certainly shows his range. I think in Not Fade Away he also uses his real voice, not the trick voice he devised for Boardwalk. Incidentally, Huston is the grandson of the iconic director and actor John Huston.

Bela Heathcoate plays love interest Grace. It may just be the makeup and costumes, but I was surprised that this was the same Bella Heathcoate who played Victoria Winters in the execrable Dark Shadows movie. In this way, nuanced and interesting performances can help wash the bad taste out of our mouths from horrible, disturbing nightmares like Dark Shadows.

James Gandolfini’s performance in Not Fade Away is a big reason that I am recommending this film. Anyone who only thinks of Gandolfini as Tony Soprano is not giving him enough credit – he has given varied and excellent supporting performances in Killing Them Softly, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Last Castle. Perhaps my affection for the Gandolfini character speaks to my age, which is much closer to Not Fade Away’s father than to its son. I particularly love a shot near the end the film when Gandolfini’s small gesture speaks volumes about his concern and love for his son. The look on Gandolfini’s face at the end of the sequence defines heartbreak. My eyes are tearing up just thinking about it now.
Not Fade Away perfectly captures the schadenfreude of almost-adulthood. Another thing it gets right: the sixties. Not Fade Away does not depict the “movie real” sixties of The Doors or Forrest Gump – all clichés and fashion – but the real sixties, man. The other night my family and I were watching Dazed and Confused on cable, and it seemed to us that Richard Linklater must have invented a time machine. He gets the period details exactly right: the hair is right, the clothes are right (I once had an ADIDAS t-shirt exactly like the one in the movie!) – not everyone looks like they shopped at “Sixties R Us” or ran a tie-dying cooperative. Not Fade Away achieves the same verisimilitude. Not many films are able to do that. Groovy.

Not Fade Away has been criticized because some of its characters are opaque and some of its plot threads do not pay off, but it is this very messiness that I like about this film. Many critics wondered if this narrative ambiguity was a result of Chase working exclusively in serialized television dramas; Not Fade Away almost resembles the pilot for a much longer miniseries. It puts a lot of balls in motion at once but then lets some of them drop. Yet the narrative is meandering and disjointed because these specific characters have lives that are meandering and disjointed.

I will concede that the film may have one too many framing devices. The film begins with a female voice reading a high-school term paper aloud; the paper seems to be on the subject of rock and roll and the sixties. This framing narration is then dropped for the entirety of the film, only to return at the very end when we learn the identity of the narrator/paper writer, and she appears onscreen to finish the narration and dance in the street. Like an experimental or student film, Not Fade Away would be stronger without this frame, even though, truth be told, the chick is a pretty good dancer.

Little Steven Van Zandt – of both The Sopranos and Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band – assembled the music for Not Fade Away. My sources report that most films have a music rights budget of about two percent of their cost; for Not Fade Away, that figure was 12 percent, and it was money well spent. The film uses a lot of great pop tunes from the sixties: the Rolling Stones’ ”Tell Me’” and “Parachute Woman,” Bob Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” the Moody Blues’ “Go Now,” Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom,” the Left Banke’s “Pretty Ballerina,” Van Morrison’s “T.B. Sheets,” the Small Faces’ “Itchycoo Park.” The Rascals’ “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart” is repeated endlessly in a sequence designed, I am sure, to demonstrate the extreme tedium of many band rehearsals. Because I was actually alive in the sixties, I tend to forget just how old these songs really are. The Stones’ songs, for example, are just about to celebrate their 50th birthdays! These songs will be soon be eligible for early retirement. But we will not want them to retire. BECAUSE THEY KICK ASS.
Not Fade Away is being released on DVD and Blu-Ray today. Go out on your lunch hour and buy it! Then in the afternoon, watch it on your work computer while you just PRETEND to analyze spreadsheets (or whatever the hell it is you do.)


  1. Your last paragraph - gangbusters :-)

  2. I saw "Fade Away" early this year while it was still playing a couple of theaters in Gotham. I didn't like the movie as much as you do but I respected what it was trying to achieve which is basically the opposite of Tom Hanks' romanticism in "That Thing You Do" about the same subject matter. Most of the young cast left me cold, but I'm almost sure that David Chase did that on purpose. Gandolfini's performance is easily the best part of "Not Fade Away" (tough and moving without resorting to any mannerisms), and that ending is definitely a love-it-or-hate-it thing (I hated it, and the three other people in the theater with me seemed to also not like it or the movie).

    I'd recommend a rental over a purchase just to be safe, since Chase's mise en scène isn't for everybody.

  3. I watched an interview with Chase around the time this was coming out and I thought it looked interesting - how could a reunion of him and Gandolfini NOT be - so thanks for confirming that and reminding me about it!

    Okay, back to my "spreadsheets"!

  4. I love the ending! The beat goes on! Chase basically ends the entire 60's within the last five minutes of that film foreshadowing the chaotic end of the era with the Manson family, the inevitable commodification of 60's rock, and the coming of a new era symbolized by his younger sister dancing to the first recorded song by soon to be punk legends the Sex Pistols and the sound they will usher in.

  5. We always knew who the narrator was she said so in the opening line of the movie.

    1. Yes, I was just trying to avoid a spoiler in the review.