David Chase’s first film suggests he hasn’t totally grasped the unique demands of cinema—as opposed to TV, the format that delivered his masterpiece The Sopranos—but his novice status allows him to make some risky moves that more “correct” filmmakers would shy away from. Many critics have noted that the film feels like an entire season (if not series) of television crammed into two hours, collapsing the story into what may strike some as a muddle. Yet while some aspects of the story that might have flourished if given more breathing room—such as character development and scene-setting—suffer, the film’s compression also results in some startlingly vivid rhythms. The overall effect is like if someone took a beautifully rendered history painting and crumpled the canvas up until it became an abstract composition. So yes, anyone who comes looking for the “storytelling” virtues of Chase’s television work is bound to be disappointed. Those who dug The Sopranos for its stranger, often more frustrating aspects—the surrealism; the running musical commentary provided by Chase’s song selections; the refusal to provide resolution, most famously in the show’s blackout finale—are much more likely to groove on Chase’s 60s-in-a-blender anti-bildungsroman.
Like any number of young people in the 1960s, Douglas (John Magaro) feels he is at the center of a unique cultural moment. This Chase surrogate joins a band with several of his teenage friends, hoping to catch the wave of sex, drugs, and rock and roll sweeping the nation. The band doesn’t go far, but Douglas’ Bob Dylan hair and lead singer status give him the confidence to date his high school crush Grace (Bella Heathcote). A sizable chunk of the film’s running time is spent on the couple’s individual family lives in subplots that are alternately heartwrenching (Douglas’ standoffish relationship with his father, played by James Gandolfini) and confused (the plight of Grace’s unstable sister). Eventually, it becomes clear that Douglas’ musical dreams are unlikely to come to fruition, and that his relationship with Grace may be just as fragile.
Not Fade Away stands a cut above most other nostalgia trips of its shade largely thanks to a cannier handling of its cultural reference points. Chase’s often bizarre approach to pacing has a couple of obvious advantages: compared to something like Across the Universe, or even Almost Famous, Fade doesn’t linger over cultural fetish items long enough to pat viewers on the back for remembering them. The Beatles are a fact of life in Chase’s universe, not some monolithic sea change in human culture. Characters don’t spend scenes suspended in candlelit reveries listening to Tommy by themselves; music instead forms the backdrop to the daily settings in which they flail aimlessly around New Jersey. Most importantly, Chase shows how these cultural items and the lifestyle they surround grate against the sensibility of the older generation, personified and humanized by Gandolfini. Orson Welles is just as important a reference point to this film as Mick Jagger is: the sight of his Hank Quinlan from Touch of Evil, conversing with an aged Marlene Dietrich no less, brings to mind the sympathy with which Welles treated his behind-the-times conservative villains. In another scene, Grace proves a much more astute viewer of Antonioni’s Blow-Up than her beau. Not Fade Awaycelebrates much of the same culture that its characters do, but its boldest move may be the suggestion that they’re learning all the wrong lessons from it.