The 1960s have been as thoroughly documented, analyzed, interpreted, and reinterpreted on film as any other historical period, if not more so. There are few, if any, genuinely fresh takes on the sweeping social, cultural, and artistic movements of the decade left to explore, especially when it comes to viewing these seismic shifts through the prism of rock & roll. But that does not mean a talented artist cannot offer a fresh perspective, or lead us to a greater understanding of sociocultural concepts both major and minor in doing so.
This is what writer/director David Chase achieves in Not Fade Away, the Sopranos creator’s first feature film. Revolving around the lead singer of a teenage rock & roll band and his hometown community in the 1960s, the film does not purport to reinvent the wheel, or even ask us to view the wheel in a new or different light. The film instead offers a spectacularly smart and layered screenplay, an insightful and unvarnished portrait of 60s middle class culture and social mores, a lot of top-notch vintage rock & roll, and some of the most nuanced, finely observed characterization one is likely to see this year. Is it enough to completely reestablish the way we view or dramatize the era? No, but it is an embarrassment of cinematic riches nevertheless, one that deepens and augments my personal understanding of the period while offering some razor sharp insight into our ever-changing modern culture as well.
Even more so than in his work on The Sopranos, Chase’s disinterest in conventional ‘plot’ is clear from the start, as Not Fade Away focuses almost entirely on character, relying on dramatic intimacy and introspection to suggest the bigger ideas at play. As such, the film is less an immediately gripping or satisfying experience than one the viewer gradually relaxes into, enjoying the film more and more as it moves along and the characters are steadily, organically fleshed out. Chase’s writing is tremendous, but not in a flashy or stylized way. His dialogue emulates reality as closely as possible, often focusing on the minutiae or vacuity of speech to lend greater context to the ways and reasons for which words are said. This prompts us to actively observe and study the characters as real, three-dimensional people, just as we might to those we encounter in everyday life.
The focus on such grounded and nuanced characterization is challenging, at times, as Chase asks us to invest in figures who can be as ugly and off-putting as they are compelling. Douglas, the main character, is hardly your typical rock singer protagonist; he’s selfish, petty, smug, and even cold-hearted at times. He has plenty of redeeming attributes, and the positives probably outweigh the negatives all things considered, but Chase does not put Douglas’ best foot forward right off the bat. We are presented most clearly with the character’s flaws from the very beginning, and while Not Fade Away is most definitely a journey of discovery, it is not necessarily one of healing or personal betterment. The Douglas we meet in the opening is, by and large, the Douglas we see at the end; if we have come to like him, it is only because our understanding has broadened.
The same holds true for most of the characters, even those presented in more favorable lights. They are who they are, fully formed from the opening moments, but our perspective – and theirs, to a certain extent – is shaped by experience and interaction. It is a dramatically demanding style, but one Chase pulls off with aplomb in both writing and direction. By the end, I found myself absolutely fascinated by every decision these characters make, and intellectually stimulated by the larger social and cultural implications contained therein.
Much of the credit must go to the film’s outstanding ensemble cast, each of whom displays a mastery of subtle, understated, and fully realized performance. As Douglas, John Magaro is a spectacular find; not only does he 100% look the part of a disillusioned 20-year-old rock singer – with curly hair and a wiry figure, Magaro is a dead ringer for a young Bob Dylan – but he moves through this world with total authenticity and a highly compelling screen presence. He’s terrific, as is his on-screen girlfriend, Grace, played by Bella Heathcote. I found Heathcote to be a unique and absorbing performer in Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows, and here, with much better material and a bigger part, she’s fantastic. As with everything in Not Fade Away, Grace is a deeper examination of a known type – the young 60s woman just realizing she may be part of the first female generation to have genuine opportunities – but thanks in part to Chase’s writing and more so to Heathcote’s work, she is one of the most interesting corners of the movie.
Jack Huston, best known for stealing the show on a weekly basis as Richard Harrow on Boardwalk Empire, does very strong work as the band’s original lead singer, Gene, and Christopher McDonald and Brad Garrett both show up in small but well-sketched roles as well. The cast highlight is James Gandolfini, whose work as Douglas’ bitter, emotionally closeted father is absolutely sensational. There are no actors more capable of illustrating the warmth in an initially unlikable figure, and Gandolfini makes us feel and understand this man’s pain even when he is a less than supportive father. The relationship he and Douglas share is a complex and captivating one, and the best scenes involve Gandolfini and Magaro squaring off or, less frequently, making nice.
In fact, generational dispute is one of the best-observed issues in Not Fade Away, as several standout scenes highlight not only the gap between young people and their parents, but the larger, less obvious implications of that gap. Rock & roll as a pop culture sensation was as much a celebration of newfound creative and vocational freedom as a form of outright rebellion, and much of Not Fade Away focuses on the way these characters accept the more open paths they have the chance to walk. When confronted by their parents about this, it is not so much the long hair, leather jackets, or open sexuality that disturbs the older generation, but the inability to comprehend a life that is not rigid or predetermined.
But the genius behind Chase’s script is that unlike most 60s stories, he does not portray the parents as needlessly stodgy; we understand James Gandolfini’s worldview as much as we do his son’s, and sympathize equally. The father probably does not need to be so antagonistic towards his son for having opportunities he never did, but neither does Douglas need to flaunt this fact in his father’s face or so openly, and without much thought, start political arguments.
As relatively somber as I have described the film, it is also a highly joyous affair at times, as any celebration of rock & roll must be. Discussing the actual musical elements of the film is almost besides the point – rock serves as a metaphor and prism for everything I have so far described – but Not Fade Away sounds fantastic and often bursts with the primal, nostalgic energy of one’s first encounter with the genre. E-Street Band guitarist and rock & roll expert Steven Van Zandt served as executive producer and musical supervisor on the film, and his deep, abiding knowledge of this era shines through at every turn. Many films purport to be about music, but few understand music as thoroughly and enthusiastically as Not Fade Away. On every level, this is smart, confident, authentic, and thoroughly satisfying filmmaking, and one of the best films of 2012.
This review was originally published on December 20th, and has been re-published for the film’s theatrical expansion on January 4th. It is now playing in many more theatres nationwide.