Not Fade Away, David Chase’s follow-up to The Sopranos, is too vibrant and strange to be nostalgic. Sure, the movie takes place in the sixties and centers around a garage band, but unlike That Thing You Do, characters interests Chase more than the simple trajectory of a one-hit wonder. The slow-moving plot and questionable camera-work sometimes calls too much attention to itself – Chase’s focus wanders the way a sprawling TV show might – yet his deep affection for his subject draws us into a world of guitars, long hair, and Cuban heels.
It’s 1964 in suburban New Jersey, and Doug (John Magaro) still lives with his parents. He tells his father Pat (James Gandolfini) he wants to go to college and possibly join the marines, but that’s before the British Invasion seeps into Doug’s pores. After a semester of school, Doug comes home with long hair, as well as modern ideas about race and war. He joins a band with his friend Wells (Will Brill) and Eugene (Jack Huston), a local legend. They have ideas for a band name – Chase never supplies us with one – but what matters more is getting their cover of “Time Is on My Side” just right. Their version is decent, at least until Doug ditches the drum kit and starts singing lead. His reedy, Jagger-esque voice attracts Joy (Dominique McElligott), and soon the young couple plants their future as serious artists.
In terms of basic structure, there are many scenes in Not Fade Away that other filmmakers tackled countless times. Doug grows more outspoken, for example, and his immediate family does not know how to handle his rebellion. But what differentiates this scene from its counterparts is Chase’s keen ear for unusual dialogue that still sounds plausible. After Pat aggressively threatens to beat Doug, his mother shouts, “I should kill myself!” as if there is no better way to express her outrage. Whenever there are two people talking, particularly Doug and Joy, Chase brilliantly highlights how conversation can sometimes amount to concurrent monologues, without any genuine listening. His characters all have hang-ups and obsessions, and he humanizes them with inarticulate language. Their inability to communicate can be hilarious, and also heartbreaking.
Rock music is front and center, yet Chase leaves also leaves room for plausible diversions. By loosening the plot, there’s the impression it’s all too difficult to get a band together. Eugene leaves the group and joins up again later. Years pass before Doug and Wells write an original song. Some plot points have no meaning: they just sort of happen in the way life can be awful and messy. Talent can only get Doug so far, and in the closing passages, there’s melancholy hope that he’s finally in the right place at the right time. Such a sprawling approach, unsurprisingly, has its down side. Chase’s fondness for his characters gets the better of him, so there are superfluous scenes where nothing happens and nothing important is said. Chase also fills the frame with close-ups, which creates intimacy but sometimes us distracts from the action. It’s a little indulgent, yet Chase’s confidence overcomes his more bizarre choices.
Rich material like this is a perfect opportunity for actors to show off their depth. In his first major role, Magaro straddles the line between a shallow kid and a confident young man (his transition from drummer to leading man is the most satisfying moment in the movie). Gandolfini underplays Pat, so that his rage and unhappiness looms over every scene he’s in. Still, the real stand-oug performance is Huston’s take as Eugene. Best known for his role in Boardwalk Empire, Huston sheds Richard Harrow’s grotesque face in favor of a guy who knows his place on the hierarchy of fame. Eugene is content as a big fish in a small pond, and Huston ably combines a large ego with modest ambition. He’s sort of like Matthew McConaughey’s character from Dazed and Confused, except he also knows a dozen guitar chords.
David Chase is at his best when he’s capturing a specific moment, no matter how strange or seemingly unremarkable. In terms of his command of tone, his movie is similar to Moonrise Kingdom, where Wes Anderson finds a way to film the sixties without getting sentimental about it. We’re not shown how things used to be, but in all its meandering complications, we’re shown how it was for Doug and his family. The title may take its name from an early Rolling Stones tune, but Not Fade Away has more in common with their later album “Exile on Main Street”: brimming with ideas, hard to pin down, and the better for it.