'Not Fade Away' leaves a sensible mark
By Glenn Kenny, Special to MSN Movies
The white male coming-of-age tale is so familiar to both literature and cinema that it's practically hoary, but as long as white males keep writing books and making movies, it's not going away anytime soon. But as it grows hoarier, the challenge to make something distinctive out of such a thing grows steeper. David Chase, the stalwart and often visionary creator of television's "The Sopranos," takes on the challenge the honorable old-fashioned way: by applying not just great sensitivity and empathy and personal honesty, but also a genuine and fully formed sensibility to the task.
That sensibility is here most crucially informed by music, specifically the rock music of the British invasion of the early '60s, which for some bright kids, aside from being galvanizing in and of itself, performed the neat trick of selling the Americans back their own heretofore obscure artists and their works. Chase's film, which is narrated by the hero's kid sister, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), aims to tell this particular cultural story as well as the aforementioned coming-of-age one. The film's focus is Douglas (John Magaro), a sweet-natured suburban Jersey boy with working-class Italian-American roots who's all set on a conventional aspirational existence of going to a good school like his old man never did, and all the like. The following of convention is rocked a little by the appearance of the Beatles on "The Ed Sullivan Show," and all but overturned by the time Douglas has a drum kit and starts rehearsing R&B cover tunes with a bunch of his pals (Jack Huston and Will Brill most memorable among them). And by the time he's returned from his first semester of college, he's got the hair. And soon he's got a romance going with Grace (Bella Heathcote) a waifish girl from a more affluent family whose older sister Joy (Dominique McElligott) is aiming to tick off her dad (Christopher McDonald) but good by going full bohemian. As for Douglas' working-stiff dad, played by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, his disapproval mounts with every new life-and-fashion choice Douglas makes, until a cataclysmic event puts him in a position to make some life choices of his own.
All of the above situations read like the stuff of pretty standard drama, and, well, it is. What makes "Not Fade Away" distinctive is, of course, the perspective Chase brings to the table. He's particularly acute without being obnoxiously on the nose about, for instance, how the tender feelings of young love square away with the machismo that soon comes under the scrutiny of post-counterculture feminism. Douglas' feelings of sexual jealousy, stoked by bandmates during crisis times, threatens his relationship with Grace in a potentially heartbreaking way. While not uncritical of Douglas, Chase handles his folly gently. There's a real "Back Pages" sense of "I'm younger than that now" in a lot of the observation here that goes hand in hand with a song selection that satisfies the movie's need for familiar cultural signposts while also conveying the excitement of discovery a lot of that music carried. The boomer got kind of lucky with rock 'n' roll. Most popular music genres only directly inform a single generation or so, while rock 'n' roll has had an over-50-year run. Chase's vision insists that the music is even more significant than that, which he puts across in a bit of poetic license at the end that "makes sense" of Douglas's little sister doing the narrating. It's the poetic sense displayed throughout that also animates and distinguishes "Not Fade Away." The odd bits of lyricism with which Chase frequently imbued episodes of "The Sopranos" have a more congenial (by which, I feel obliged to point out, I don't necessarily mean "apt") home in a story of this sort than the tale of a violent Mafia patriarch, and Chase makes the most of that.
I should admit here, though, that while I'm 14 years younger than Chase, I
still felt a strong personal link to "Not Fade Away." I grew up in a part of New
Jersey not very far from where it's set (when one character tells another that
she traveled back from New York "on the 33," I could pretty much smell the bus
to which she referred) and was precocious/aware enough to have known such things
as the Beatles on "Ed Sullivan" and the Kennedy assassination. This may color my
enthusiasm somewhat. Still, I like to think I was mostly taken in by the
wonderful cast and Chase's fond and generous evocation of another time, another
Glenn Kenny is chief film critic for MSN Movies. He was the chief film critic for Premiere magazine from 1998 to 2007. He contributes to various publications and websites, and blogs at http://somecamerunning.typepad.com. He lives in Brooklyn.