Not Fade Away doesn’t have an opening scene–it has an overture. You could almost call it a mash-up. After a brief snippet of TV footage showing New Jersey boys Joey Dee and the Starliters performing their 1962 hit “Peppermint Twist,” the image is replaced by an old RCA “Indian Head” test pattern superimposed with the words “Please Stand By” as a voice announces a test of the Emergency Broadcast System. After the familiar emergency-alert tone starts buzzing away for a couple of bars, it’s co-opted as part of the beat behind the guitar riff that opens “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” The sense of time and place thus conjured is strong: it’s 1965, and America is on the verge of a rock-and-roll emergency.
Cut across space and time to a black-and-white vignette in which a couple of English lads calling each other “Mick” and Keith” on a commuter train out of Dartford Station compare notes on R&B records and electric guitars. It’s 1961, and suburban London is the staging ground for what would become the British Invasion. Cut again to a high-angle shot depicting the expanse of the New York City suburbs, looking east across the Hudson River towards Manhattan. The camera cranes down as teenaged Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) tells us, in voiceover, about the time her own brother started a band with his friends. “Like with most bands,” she says, just a hint of conspiratorial excitement creeping into her voice, “you’ve never heard of them.”
In another brief vignette, said brother, Douglas (John Magaro), drumsticks and sheet-music tucked under his arms, has a chance meeting on the street with Wells (Will Brill) in mutual, profane admiration of a nice drum kit in a shop window. (Wells declares it “cooler than shit.”) It turns out Wells is in a band with Douglas’s friend from school, Eugene (Jack Huston), who plays a Gretsch 6118 electric guitar. But that band already has a drummer named Billy Schindewulf. Cut to: Douglas looking disappointed, thoughtful, and a little bit sheisty. Maybe he has designs on that drummer’s chair. And then the title pops onto the screen: Not Fade Away.
This is a really solid opening from Sopranos impresario David Chase, in his feature debut as writer and director. (It’s the type of thing Scorsese used to excel at, when films like Mean Streets and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore announced themselves with daring images that resolved in blaring rock and roll.) The central gimmick, which has “Satisfaction” urgently brush aside the more conventional rock-and-roll bands that dominated American pop culture of the time, is a little bit opportunistic, sure, but it’s thrilling and unexpected all the same. The ensuing interlude with the nascent Stones is less than a minute long, and while it feels weird and indulgent, it turns out to serve a purpose beyond quirk. Contrast Mick and Keith’s ease with each other, their middle-class urbanity, and their conversance in American musical forms, with the awkward, fuck-heavy conversation between Douglas and Wells, who communicate more tersely and warily. They come off like total dipshits compared to the Stones. This rock-and-roll movie isn’t about the cool kids. Not Fade Away is about the beautiful losers, the young and the damned.
Over the course of a little less than two hours, Chase means to trace the trajectory of an abortive career in rock-and-roll, starting with Douglas’s aspirations to join a band. He takes his place behind the skins, and eventually behind the mic, becoming the de facto leader of a group that plays to ever-larger audiences, eventually winning the attention of a record producer who tells them they have a whole lotta dues to pay before they’re ready for a record deal. Where there’s a rock-and-roll boy, there’s usually a rock-and-roll girl, and this girl is Grace (Bella Heathcote), a willowy thing with big blue eyes and great bangs (she seems to have been modeled on Jean Shrimpton) who only notices Douglas once he steps away from the drum kit. And where there’s a working-class kid who trades in the sure thing of a respectable career for his own quixotic fantasies, there’s sure to be a disappointed father bellowing at him to get a job and a haircut. Here the father, Pasquale, is played by James Gandolfini, reprising Tony Soprano as a sad-eyed mope. What we see is basically the same character, stripped of Tony’s menacing, violent rage and the trappings of money and mob power. He’s just a blue-collar schlub who works hard at his Pep Boys franchise to make a better life for his son and gets a Bob Dylan wannabe and a case of lymphoma for his trouble.
I could never tell how seriously to take Chase’s portrait of a rock-and-roll dreamer. The film feels fairly affectionate towards the kid, but Douglas is downright hilarious in his affectations. At one point, he’s lounging around at a family barbecue, spewing sophomore-level film theory, bragging about a planned relocation to L.A., and responding to an observation that rock-and-roll keeps you young with an aloof appeal to ars gratia artis. (“Does Dostoyevsky keep you young?” he snaps.) He’s either genuinely obnoxious or appallingly tone-deaf. Mostly he feels out of place, like a character wandered out of a Wes Anderson movie and into an indie family drama about growing up Italian-American. That’s the thing about rock-and-roll dreams: unless and until you’re unsuccessful, they come across as pretensions.
Chase has downplayed the autobiographical aspects of the film; a visit to his Wikipedia page illustrates that the main story beats hit pretty close to home. Chase grew up in New Jersey, where he was a drummer in a rock-and-roll band (though he never played a real gig), and he has admitted that Douglas’s relationship with his parents as depicted in this film was “very close” to his own. Although the movie’s scale is personal–the only thing outsized about the production is the music-clearance budget–its scope is epic. Six years is a mighty long time when you’re aging out of high school, going through college, and finally packing up your bags and figuring out where you want to live the next part of your life.
And Not Fade Away is rife with the sort of Big Events that propel a season-long television narrative but blur the focus of a feature film. Pat gets cancer. Eugene crashes his motorbike into a roadside lawn jockey. Douglas learns that Grace has been unfaithful; they break up, reconcile. Repeated digressions involve Grace’s older sister (Dominique McElligott), an incipient New Ager who eventually ends up committed to a psychiatric institution to the accompaniment of deep cut “Down So Low” by Mother Earth. This stuff could be fodder for several movies, and it fills this one to overflowing.
As a result, Not Fade Away flits quickly, maybe bafflingly, from episode to episode, sometimes offering nothing beyond a character’s new haircut or the sudden presence of a period-appropriate fashion accessory to denote the passage of time. The (surfeit of) cultural references work as milestones to some extent, but decoding them gets tricky. When a character is literally awakened by the sound of The Beatles performing on “The Ed Sullivan Show”, you know it’s early 1964 because you can look that up on Wikipedia. But why does the marquee of the Lafayette Theater conspicuously advertise The Pit and the Pendulum, a late 1961 release, when Evelyn’s narration pegs that scene in 1963? A scene set in a movie theatre showing Blow-Up obviously indicates the ensuing holiday dinner takes place in December, 1966. Then it’s suddenly June 1967, with Evelyn’s voiceover arbitrarily announcing the Summer of Love as we watch Douglas and Eugene paint a house. (Irony? Maybe. As irony goes, it’s mild.) I kept thinking scenes had been deleted and that what remained was struggling to help audiences make sense of a truncated chronology.
Part of the problem with Not Fade Away is that its musicians don’t have what it takes to make it. When real-world songwriter and producer Jerry Ragovoy (portrayed by Brad Garrett in the film) meets with them, he suggests they earn a living playing standards in basements and pool halls for six months, then get back to him. The band balks, and there’s the rub: The movie about the band that hits the New Jersey club circuit, grinding it out night after night, could be plenty fun. The movie about this band, which lacks the moxie to fulfill its destiny, suffers from a dearth of fun. To a great extent, Not Fade Away is a fun-free zone.
Douglas’s relationship with his family is tense with mutual resentment. The jealous infighting between band members is cut through with the kind of bitterness you can imagine lasting for decades. Even sex is gloomy. The rutting scene between Douglas and Grace is shot in a near darkness that lends the tableau a monochromatic brown tone; she lies there with a single breast exposed, as if contractually, and he moves perfunctorily on top of her. Even a goofy scene where three of the boys stand underground, sticking their necks out through a sewer grate in an apparent parody of the cover of Meet the Beatles!, comes off not as a macabre joke but as a genuinely weird surrealist prank. (Was there more of this sort of thing left on the cutting-room floor?) Chase has complained that his Hollywood reputation is “dark,” and it’s easy to see why. Even at its most ostensibly lighthearted, Not Fade Away is deflating.
There are glimmers, though. The opening fifteen minutes are special, culminating in a rehearsal scene where Douglas uses the Charlie Watts beat driving “Not Fade Away” as the jumping-off point for a performance of “Bo Diddley” that’s intercut with vintage footage of the man himself performing the song. I liked a gag at a high-school talent show where a smirking Douglas complains of his hopelessly square fellow students, “They’re clapping on the on beat.” To which his smug buddy responds, without hesitation, “Fags.” Most of the scenes involving musical performances have at least a hint of liveliness to them–music supervisor/executive producer Steven Van Zandt ran a boot camp to train the actors to actually play their instruments before filming started, and it shows. Not Fade Away doesn’t necessarily think much of its characters, but it’s downright reverential when it comes to the music. So it’s doubly vexing that a boomer nostalgist like Chase would end up making such a drab, dour period drama about his music of choice.
But then there’s the final four-minute sequence, in which Chase hits fast-forward on his material. The narrative by then has reached 1968, yet the scene is clearly conceived in the here and now. It starts with Douglas hitchhiking on Sunset Boulevard, then declining a ride when the first car that pulls over gives him a decidedly un-groovy feeling. (Sitting in the passenger seat is a young woman with the skin tone of a ghost and large black tears drawn on her face who says, “You look lonesome.”) In passing, a blaring car radio tuned to station KMJK promises “the music of tomorrow,” and a cover of “Roadrunner” by the Sex Pistols fades in. The effect is bracing.
And then–and then!–Chase just goes for it, embracing incongruity as poetry. Douglas dashes across the empty past-midnight street, towards the Cinerama Dome in the distance. And then his little sister–remember her?–steps into the frame from out of nowhere, rocking a black-and-white dress and go-go boots. She watches him walk away, then turns to the camera and says, “I had to write this term paper, and I made it about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock-and-roll. It’s a question, I wrote: which one is going to win out in the end?” The music gets louder. She gives us a flirty look, over the shoulder. And then she does the frug. The sound swells to fill the room as the Pistols crank it up and, bang!, we’re back in the Peppermint Lounge with Joey Dee, who’s shimmying now to a brand new beat. Roll credits. It’s dynamite.
The use of the Sex Pistols here has been described as an anachronism, pushing the action forward to 1979, but in reality it merely exposes the auteur’s privilege. The music isn’t anachronistic, it’s non-diegetic, so there’s no presumption that it originates within the world of the film. Instead, it’s an authorial imposition–Chase’s way of noting that, just as the British Invasion would eclipse first-wave American rock-and-roll, punk music would do its best to drive a stake through the heart of the upscale rock that characterized the 1970s. At one point, Grace explicitly quotes Plato: “When the mode of the music changes, the walls of the city shake.” Now, the Sex Pistols aren’t necessarily Skrillex, but Chase understands that time passes and fashions change, and with them the music of the times. In spite of its many faults, Not Fade Away ultimately acknowledges that fact–indeed, celebrates it. Chase may be a boomer nostalgist, but he’s not stupid.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Not Fade Away came and went from theatres exceptionally quickly–a bit of a surprise given its prestigious launch at the New York Film Festival, which declared it “one of the best rock movies ever.” Paramount Vantage never seemed to really get behind it, however, and the film’s disastrous performance in platform release sealed its fate. Fortunately, Blu-ray is not a terrible way to see the movie, shot digitally with the ARRI Alexa. Cinematographer Eigil Bryld works very much in the mode of Gordon Willis, capturing rich colors and letting the toe of the image drift into the shadows. It’s a dark transfer, but I saw a DCP in a good theater and that was exceptionally dark, too, so I’m calling it a win for Paramount. There is quite a bit of detail in those shadows, though your display will have to be well-calibrated to bring it out. What’s more, the blacks are almost completely noise-free and skin tones, at least in the warm, naturalistic day exteriors, are flush and right on target. The image is presented here at the HDTV aspect ratio of 1.77:1 and has been encoded at a fairly generous bit rate.
Audiowise, the disc shines in its lossless (5.1 DTS-HD MA) reproduction of the live performances that were captured specifically for the film. Individual instruments are represented up front while the surrounds mainly define the room tone. The centre channel is clean and robust, locking down the dialogue tracks. The movie’s song score, from “Satisfaction” to “Roadrunner,” comes through loud and clear with all the muscle it deserves, though the stereo masters were spread across the surround channels to fill out the mix. It’s not an especially aggressive soundtrack otherwise, using the side speakers only when ambience is appropriate to the environment on screen. Strongly directional effects are rare. It’s a classy, unfussy mix.
The main extra feature is an almost-36-minute-long HD doc called “The Basement Tapes”. It’s broken into three sections. The first, “Track 1: The Boys in the Band” (13:28), gives Chase a soapbox from which to proclaim the superiority of 1960s rock-and-roll, then delves into the process of training the chosen actors as musicians. “Track 2: Living in the Sixties” (12:22) looks a little more closely at the film’s period trappings, with contributions from costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas and Andy Babiuk, who has the unwieldy (if descriptive) title of associate music supervisor, band equipment, and technical authentication. “Track 3: Hard Art” (10:04) considers the effort that goes into the creation of feature films, as well as record albums. “David described this band as having all of the character problems of The Beatles or Rolling Stones,” recalls actor Will Brill, “but without the talent or drive.” Most of main actors contribute to these proceedings, as do Mark Johnson, Chase’s co-producer, and Steven Van Zandt, apparently Chase’s right-hand man when it came to the music featured in the film. (“David did the recipe, and I did the cooking,” he says.)
This stuff is a cut above your typical behind-the-scenes lovefest, and Chase’s contributions in particular aren’t complete bullshit. That may sound like faint praise, and I wouldn’t exactly call this material “candid,” but nor does it feel like nothing more than a command performance on behalf of the studio marketing department. At the end of this three-parter, Chase is reflecting on his intentions for the film, which were partly to advance the idea that the “naiveté and idealism” of the swinging 1960s haven’t entirely vanished from daily life–and are, maybe, nice to have around. “Art and music, for those of us who aren’t religious, are about the closest we can get to God,” he says. “They make life worth living, and they are transcendent things.” (He also says, “This movie is not in any way autobiographical,” which is hard to believe, but whatever.)
“Building the Band,” on the other hand, is 3:06 of typical promo fare that goes so far as to reuse material from the longer documentary, with some of the generally thoughtful phrasing from the longer doc clumsily edited to the bare minimum of words required to express something approaching an idea. Skip it. Finally, there are four deleted scenes, in high-quality HD, running a total of 5:33. Of these, the first two, “Naming the Band” (0:26) and “Thanksgiving” (1:55), are short, funny extensions of existing scenes. (“Naming the Band” muses briefly on the relationship between artist and audience, and the dinner-table chaos depicted in “Thanksgiving” feels almost like an outtake from Woody Allen’s Radio Days. I might have argued to keep them.) “Eviction” (2:15) is a lovely new scene that has Grace picking up a guitar in a quiet moment, trying on a privilege largely denied women in this man’s world. (It’s huge in contrast to her spindly, fragile frame.) “You and Me Gonna Tangle” (0:51) is another short scene extension, this one featuring Gandolfini. It’s both on-the-nose and inessential.
When I reviewed it, the disc started up by streaming trailers for World War Z and Flight. It’s impossible to scan through them, but you can pause them or click Next to skip ahead. Also tucked into the Blu-ray case is a single sheet of paper with an authorization code for Ultraviolet cloud streaming, as well as a Digital Copy.