Not Fade Away (***1/2)

not_fade_awayNo matter what David Chase chose to do with his feature debut, it was always going to be judged against the work he did on HBO with ‘The Sopranos’. Had he made a gangster movie, it would have been setting himself up for disaster. Instead, Chase has written and directed the coming of age story ‘Not Fade Away’, and it’s likely to still underwhelm those expecting more mob dealings. This is instead a love letter to growing up and listening to rock music in the 1960’s, and despite not being what many expect from Chase…it’s a wonderful little film. From Chase’s writing to the lead performance of John Magaro and the scene stealing supporting work from James Gandolfini, so much of this flick is a treat. It’s too small to really catch the eye of the Academy at this point, but it’s a dark horse contender for my year end Top 10 list, which I’ll be revealing in a few weeks time. Out this Friday, ‘Not Fade Away’ is the kind of movie that likely have to wait for home video to truly be appreciated. That’s a sad fact of life for Chase’s work, but I’m confident that it will receive the recognition it deserves before all is said and done.

The plot isn’t especially original, but it’s clearly autobiographical and the way that the details are realized is what makes this work so well. It’s the 60’s, and for a group of teenagers growing up in suburban New Jersey, music is about to change their lives. Our protagonist Douglas (Magaro) sees music as a potential career path but also finds that his evolving ways put him in direct conflict with his conservative father Pat (Gandolfini). His friends Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill) form a band with him and soon enough they’re playing parties in town. This all begins in high school, but picks up when Douglas returns home from college, both in terms of the music and also in terms of his war with his father. Douglas also begins his first tentative romance with Grace (Bella Heathcote), who’s also caught the eye of Eugene and Wells. The plot takes some turns during the final hour, but I was there the whole way and never was thrown off by it. The story does indeed have a resolution to the main thrust of the plot, and in fact ends with one of the more interesting conclusions of the year (especially if you look at this as Chase’s own story), but it’s the journey more than the destination that makes the film so special.

not-fade-away-trailer_450x254I first noticed John Magaro earlier this year in ‘Liberal Arts’, but here he gets a starring role and knocks it out of the park. From when we first meet him staring into a music store, you can see the love and obsession in the very fiber of his being. Magaro captures the emotions of the character beautifully. He’s terrific here, only upstaged by the commanding performance that James Gandolfini gives as his father. One of my few complaints about the flick is that Gandolfini isn’t in enough scenes. He crushes this role, suggesting so much with so little. Douglas and Pat initially seem to have nothing in common, but a third act dinner conversation after Pat finds out some news suggests that father and son aren’t as different as they thought. The rest of the cast isn’t as impressive, though Bella Heathcote isn’t bad at all. Jack Huston and Will Brill are stuck in the background too often. The cast also includes Brad Garrett, Christopher McDonald, Isiah Whitlock Jr., Molly Price, Gregory Perri, and Meg Guzulescu, but this film belongs to Magaro and Gandolfini.

From pretty much frame one, David Chase has a terrific view of this world he’s leading us through. Yes, his plot may at times feel rushed and possibly more at home as a miniseries, but Chase’s writing and direction are by and large superb. Getting musical contributions from Steven Van Zandt, who wrote the original songs, doesn’t hurt either. The film always looks and more importantly feels like it’s in the 60’s, a testament to Chase’s work behind the camera. The script evolves midway through and while it might throw some, I loved where it went and was really impressed by the ending, which admittedly will be divisive. Chase isn’t making an especially easy film, but he is making an especially personal one.

Anyone who fell in love with rock and roll growing up, regardless of the time period, will see a reflection in themselves with ‘Not Fade Away’. I’m a big fan of this flick and am pretty sure it’ll wind up one of the more underrated works of 2012 when all is said and done. I first saw it at the New York Film Festival and my admiration of it has only grown since then. James Gandolfini would be in the conversation for Best Supporting Actor if this were a more perfect world. I highly recommend this film to everyone. Those who search it out will be glad that they did…

Thoughts? Discuss in the comments!