While I am an avid HBO original series enthusiast (Rome, Deadwood, etc.), I admit never got acquainted with David Chase’s The Sopranos. I remember the show’s rise and its subsequent immense popularity, but I was too young at the time to start watching and I haven’t found the time to since. In any case, the now-famous Chase made waves when he announced that he would write and direct his first feature-length film, and that would tell the story of a teen rock ‘n’ roll band in the mid-60s. Unfortunately, Not Fade Away is a resounding swing and a miss for the creator of The Sopranos.
Not Fade Away opens on some archival footage followed by a reenactment of two of the Rolling Stones meeting for the first time on a train. Shortly afterwards, a narrator pipes in to tell the audience that movie would not focus on that band’s rise to fame, but instead tell the story of one no-name group of teenage musicians who never made it in the big leagues. While I didn’t go into the film expecting a biopic of some famous band, it is a risky proposition to come out of the gate saying that the story the audience is about to watch unfold stars nobody we’ve ever heard of doing nothing important with their lives. This approach can work if the subsequent tale is funny or has some sort of moralistic or emotional message to convey, but Not Fade Away doesn’t have either of those; what it has to say about the world is just as bland and tasteless as the narrator unintentionally suggests in the film’s first five minutes.
Douglas, the low-key protagonist of Not Fade Away played by John Magaro, has a sort of general apathy toward the world that makes him difficult to root for as a character. While there is a noticeable shift in his interests and rhetoric as the film progresses, he doesn’t seem to grow at all as a character and we leave him at the film’s conclusion much as we found him – a drifting, aimless, uninteresting, whiny bore. Having said that, Magaro’s performance was just compelling enough to keep my attention in spite of the material he had to work with.
The rest of the characters suffer the same fate as the ungainly protagonist. None of them are particularly likable or memorable outside of Douglas’s father played by the fantastic James Gandolfini, and as a result they make for wholly uninteresting subjects; from the clichéd stereotypically egotistical band member to Douglas’s high school crush girl friend, the entire ensemble lacks any sort of spark or chemistry. And while most of the rest of the cast does tolerably well, Molly Price’s Antoinette ruins most of the scenes she’s in with annoyingly forced anguish that inspires more eye rolling than sympathy (or laughs – it wasn’t really clear what she was going for).
But what is truly fundamental to the failing of Not Fade Away is Chase’s determination to say absolutely nothing by the time the credits roll. I don’t mind a movie that isn’t trying to tell a story (although the exposition of the narrator seems to imply otherwise), but if there is no narrative arc to the film, then I have no idea what the film is supposed to be about. There’s nothing wrong with more abstract movies that try to elicit emotion or communicate a message more than tell a story, but I didn’t get either of those things from Not Fade Away. The idea of “living in the now” is brought up repeatedly implying its meta-importance to the film itself, but according to Chase’s self-destructive non-ending, living by that self-righteous mantra will only leave you broke, bitter, and alone.
Not Fade Away feels like a student audition tape for film school. That isn’t to say that it’s amateurishly executed, because it’s not, for the most part. However, its niche subject matter and lackadaisical style mean that unless the audience somehow relates directly to the story of this go-nowhere band, the only thing to recommend the film becomes its technical achievement. Without the out-of-left field unintentionally silly ending, I might have written off Not Fade Away as a strange, middling period piece about youth in suburban middle America. As it stands, the movie really just didn’t work for me on any level.
Verdict: Movie Fail