Not Fade Away- David Chase (2012)
Paramount Vantage has moved the release date of Not Fade Away, David Chase’s first project since The Sopranos, to December 21 to position it for year-end awards. After a screening at the New Orleans Film Festival last night, I can confidently say that neither Chase nor Paramount needs to worry about such things.
Not Fade Away is a mess—not of epic proportions, but in the same way that most feature film debuts are. It tries to do a little bit of everything and, in the process, fails to do anything particularly well.
The film follows the birth, boom, and bust of a New Jersey rock band in the ’60s. Our protagonist Doug knows that music is his life, but he struggles with balancing the egos of his bandmates, understanding his girlfriend, and explaining himself to his disapproving parents. Underneath it all, the times they are a-changing. Doug sings better than the lead singer, and he’s more realistic about the band’s potential than the bass player. Should the boys play covers or write their own material? Are they ready to record? Should Doug stay in school? Is he going to end up in Vietnam? Are characters going to die of cancer or go insane? If those plot points sound like cliches, it’s because they are; and, at times, the film is trying so hard to be a comprehensive look at the period that it borders on parody. When a character crashes a motorcycle minutes after explaining The Tibetan Book of the Dead, I half-expected Dewey Cox to wander on screen and wink.
Those story beats would work better if the film weren’t edited with such an inscrutable rhythm. Chase has always* preferred character over plot, and his structures are unconventional. (See any Sopranos episode involving Tony’s dreams.) But that worked better in real time over the course of eighty-six episodes. Covering five formative years in two hours, with very little breathing room, creates a film that feels overlong and rushed at the same time. A defeated James Gandolfini buoys the best scene of the film, a heartfelt father-son dinner that is a sketch of masculine vulnerability, but it feels as if the film can’t wait to get out of there. The pace is so off that it’s even difficult to tell which scenes are important, and the structure is complicated by a voice-over narration that is inconsistent at best. It’s possible that Chase and his editor Sidney Wolinksy are still tightening, but what I saw seemed like a final cut.
That being said, some elements do stick, and Not Fade Away is clearly the film Chase wanted to make. Early on, he stages an idiosyncratic black-and-white meeting of Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, and one of the early scenes gleefully drops ten f-bombs in a minute, just to make it clear that we aren’t in for PG-13. Chase prolongs many of the musical performances, and I enjoyed an impressionistic gig that alternated master shots with point-of-view angles of the mural the drummer is focusing on while he plays. Gandolfini does interesting work here as well, taking his well-honed wounded regret and applying it to his first true old-man role.
While there are highlights, I’m not sure we needed another film rehashing band dynamics, and I know we didn’t need another film about how volatile and exhilarating the 1960s were. Not Fade Away is a personal story about a seminal period, but it ends up being more Riding in Cars with Boys than Almost Famous. Temper your expectations accordingly.
*- That is, since 1999, when he could do what he wanted. The Rockford Files is as structured as it gets.