Directed by: David Chase
Premise: Set in the 1960s, a group of young men form a rock band.
What Works: Not Fade Away is a solid take on the well-worn garage band storyline and it manages to distinguish itself from similar films. As a picture set in the 1960s the filmmakers risk repeating a lot of ground that has already been covered but thankfully they keep most of the major cultural anecdotes in the background. The film begins shortly after President Kennedy’s assassination and continues throughout the decade. Director David Chase and his crew capture the time in the clothes, the music, and set design but there is an understated quality that makes Not Fade Away much more authentic than other films. Many pictures about the 1960s are wistful and often the characters are paradoxically nostalgic for the very times they live in. The characters of Not Fade Away are much more in the moment and if anything Not Fade Away is most similar to American Graffiti. That movie took place on a single evening in 1962, just before the major cultural shifts associated with the 1960s, and it’s crudeness and authenticity make it a surprisingly lively and fresh film four decades after its original release. Not Fade Away picks up where American Graffiti left off and it has a similar perspective on the past, with an equivalent sense of authenticity. This is a movie about growing up as the main character goes from a high school student to a college dropout and aspiring rock star and it addresses the naiveté of youth and the disappointment inherent to growing older. That is one of the key ways in which Not Fade Away is distinct as a movie set in the 1960s. Typically, movies set in this decade portray the young as heroic crusaders against an older generation that is racist and square. The filmmakers of Not Fade Away do not idealize 1960s youth culture and they recognize the inherent stupidity and arrogance of early adulthood while not dismissing the hopes and values of the characters. A similar approach is applied to members of the older generation, who are intolerant but also have a grasp of reality that is much more practical. This complicated relationship between generations is dramatized through the main character played by John Magaro and his father played by James Gandolfini. The relationship between father and son has a lot of texture to it and both actors do a very nice job in their roles. Not Fade Away is primarily a movie about a band and even though there are a lot of familiar turns of the garage band formula here the filmmakers present them in ways that are unique. The fact that the band sticks to the local house party circuit keeps them at a level that movies about musicians rarely ever address and the filmmakers mingle sex, drugs, and rock and roll in a way that does not spiral out of control. Because the indulgences never go over the top the film avoids the puritanical afterschool-special values that bedevil the show business genre.
What Doesn’t: Not Fade Away is underwhelming in some critical ways. As a garage band story the movie manages some novel approaches but there is a surprising lack of focus on the music itself. The band is shown practicing and performing but very little of the passion for music comes across. The story starts and ends with a framing device intended to celebrate the virility inherent to rock and roll but this comes across as silly and out of place with the rest of the film. The ending is also very inconclusive. Some of that is highlighted by the ill-conceived framing device but it is also a result of a film that lacks an underlying thesis. The filmmakers of Not Fade Away do a good job of reconstructing the period but they are less clear about what point they are making about the times or about the music.
Bottom Line: Not Fade Away has some very strong acting in it and fans of 1960s rock and roll or of period films in general may want to check it out. The picture is too unfocused for mainstream audiences but as a character study of an aspiring musician it succeeds more than it fails.
Episode: #423 (January 20, 2013)