I would like to read more in to David Chase's directorial debut. I would like to, but I can't. Near the conclusion of Not Fade Away, the narrator Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), sister of the film's protagonist Douglas (John Magaro) declares America's two most powerful contributions to the world to be rock and roll and nuclear weaponry. This sentiment jives perfectly with what the film proclaims itself to be -- one of the posters calls it a "love letter" to the artform -- but with almost none of its actual contents.
As the title alludes to, Doug and his high school friends Gene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill) are inspired by musical acts like The Rolling Stones to start a band. Children of the 1960s that they are, they grow their hair out, spar with their disapproving parents and dream big about getting a record deal even though their ceiling would seem to be nominal local celebrities.
They also check about every box in the middling rock band cliche book. They bicker about roles and entertain wildly outsized delusions of grandeur. They switch roles and members at a pace that might make Spinal Tap blush, most notably when Doug wrests the lead singer role from Gene. And of course -- of course -- they seem to be in this mostly for the women, passing around Doug's high school crush Grace (Bella Heathcote) until he's finally able to win her over. (Naturally, she goes on to cause problems with the band members, making her New Jersey's answer to Yoko Ono, I suppose.)
This isn't so much a "love note" to rock and roll as it is one to your crappy neighborhood garage band specifically. It's not off-putting per se, but it would have all been a lot more charming were there not this undercurrent of self-importance about those crappy garage bands. I mean, this is one of the United States' greatest cultural legacies -- the infighting and melodramatic romances of suburban teenagers and some moderately listenable cover songs?
As The Sopranos showcased, Chase is perfectly capable of highlighting the contradictions in terms that so often make us human. What else is Tony Soprano but precisely that? Had Not Fade Away stuck to something a little simpler -- the disintegration of thousands of average garage bands feeding this great American contribution (rock and roll) -- it might have been more effective.
It feels like Chase is throwing the kitchen sink at us, though. Music! American culture! Personal melodrama! Changing cultural mores in the 1960s! It's too bad you wind up having to dodge all those extras because it seems like there's part of a good film behind it all.