David Chase, the guy behind TV’s stellar series The Sopranos, has been an important figure in the recent wave of creative and intelligent television making and in taking the sting out of the qualifier “TV’s [insert title or actor here].” Some even dare to suggest that more exciting drama and comedy are more likely to be found on today’s tubescape than in theaters near us. Thus, we watch Not Fade Away, his foray into the feature-film realm with a certain wariness and scalar second-guessing. Can he make the migration from small to big screen, and will his film slip into the blandscape of television-series scheming? Ultimately, the verdict is all of the above.
Among other things, Not Fade Away is one of the finer rock ’n’ roll sagas to have hit the movies in a long time, with an attention to detail, archival fidelity, and a passionate focus on music, helped in part by retro-rock-loving scholar Steven Van Zandt, who serves as music supervisor. A former rock ’n’ roll drummer, Chase cooks up a veracious tale of an aspiring rock band from the New Jersey suburbs, full of high hopes, but the film also zooms out to touch on events and zeitgeist, from the one-two punch of JFK’s assassination and the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show to the socio-cultural revolution and evolution from the early ’60s to the late ’60s.
Interwoven into the storyboard are the disapproving hard-working father (James “Tony Soprano” Gandolfini, himself trying to make the small-to-big-screen jump, post-Killing Them Softly); the lovely libertine femme fatale (Bella Heathcote); and standout scenes such as the crosscutting montage between our Jersey garage band playing “Not Fade Away” and Bo Diddley’s hop-scotch beat in a black-and-white clip of the same song. Other band-related high points include the awkward sacking of the weak link in the band and that magical moment when the band plays its first original tune. “You really wrote that?” marvels one of the bandmates. “It sounds like an actual song.”
After some wobbly moments and, we daresay, TV-esque passages late in the film, Not Fade Away pulls through with a satisfying, ambiguous, and hope-fueled denouement. Our drummer/singer hero (John Magaro), a bit adrift after moving to L.A., finds his sagging spirits raised by the starstruck encounters of a Charlie Watts sighting at a party and the beaming promise of the Capitol Records logo on high. It’s like a sign from the god of rock ’n’ roll himself, signaling that things may just work out for the best, after all.