A gritty, coming-of-age film propelled by a powerful soundtrack of original rock-and-roll classics and a cast of unknowns--oh, yeah--1973’s blockbuster hit American Graffiti
. The low-budget George Lucas/Francis Ford Coppola classic was a surprise box office smash because of its great cast, clever script, fun premise and superb music.
Flash forward to 2013’s Not Fade Away. Like American Graffiti, director/writer David Chase uses a similar theme of young people looking to the future not knowing what it holds. Chase also channels the ’73 classic by utilizing a largely unknown cast and a throbbing background pulse provided by mid-60s-era British Invasion rock-and-roll hits, along with classic American blues, to give the period-piece a definite ‘60s feel.
Unlike Graffiti, which was a light-hearted look at an era gone by, Not Fade Away is a darker, edgier look at life in America during a less-revered period of American history. The film looks at a group of high school friends growing up in the mid-60s in a largely Italian-American community in suburban New Jersey. The bond among the friends is around the music they love as they attempt to hit the big-time with their band.
The protagonist is Douglas, played by relative newcomer John Magaro, who is inspired by the Rolling Stones and by the blues he discovers on old records. Douglas is the one truly talented member of the band with no name, but his introverted personality keeps him in the background on the drums until fate thrusts him to the front mic. The band begins to enjoy some success after his promotion to lead singer, but the success quickly begins to tear the group of high school friends apart.
As Douglas struggles to deal with the pressures on his band and his desire to be a rock star, his personal life has turmoil of its own. His hardworking father, played by The Sopranos star James Gandolfini, has nothing but disdain for his college dropout hippie son’s career and lifestyle choices. But Gandolfini’s Pat also has disdain for his wife, his life, and for that matter, America’s changing culture, so the friction between father and son is more of a culture clash than family feud.
Chase, who was the creator of the mega-hit The Sopranos TV series, makes his film directorial debut in what is to some degree a self-portrait. The Italian-American, New Jersey native was a drummer in a ‘60s era local rock band and much as Lucas tapped into his own recollections of his youth in California in Graffiti, Chase recalls the frustrations of immigrant American families coping with a changing nation and changing mores during the Vietnam era. And while Not Fade Away is an interesting commentary on life in America in a dynamic decade, sadly, Chase doesn’t know how to bring all of the elements together in the end, leading to a peculiar, choppy, and unsatisfying end.
Chase gets good performances from supporting cast members, particularly from Jack Huston (Boardwalk Empire) as Douglas’ bandmate and original lead-singer Eugene, and from the stunning Australian actress Bella Heathcote (Dark Shadows) who plays Douglas’ love interest and muse Grace.
The true star of the film, though, is the incredible soundtrack compiled by executive producer and music supervisor Steven Van Zandt. The E-Street Band member provides the film with a pulse and a mood that keeps things moving despite depressing themes. For lovers of ‘60s era music, this soundtrack would be a nice addition to your music collection.
I give the music in Not Fade Away an A+, but the film itself gets a B-. - Mike Gallien