Not Fade Away (Paramount Vantage, R)

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notfade 75Watching this movie feels like what it feels like to grow up, but far less angsty and terrible in hindsight.

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I’ve always been a sucker for nostalgic-period-piece/coming-of-age hybrids (see: Dazed & Confused, Stand By Me, Almost Famous, TV’s Freaks & Geeks, etc.), and the new David Chase film Not Fade Away is the strongest entry we’ve seen in that vein in about a decade. It took me by surprise, given that Chase has never made a feature film before, but is of course well known for being the mastermind behind HBO’s The Sopranos (which I’ve admittedly only seen maybe half a dozen episodes of, but which never really grabbed me).

Not Fade Away is set in 1964 New Jersey at the height of the British Invasion, which inspires three friends in their late teens to form a band in that style. The three friends in question are lead singer/guitarist Gene (Jack Houston, looking like a young Michael Shannon), bass player Wells (Will Brill), and drummer Douglas (John Magaro). The band is actually pretty good, at least for a shitty, small-town band made up of dudes in their late teens who are much more interested in trying to get laid than they are trying to play good music. At an early gig, Gene accidentally sucks an entire joint into his windpipe (not sure how to phrase this clearly—I don’t mean he smokes a whole joint, of course, but that he sucks on it so hard that the whole, solid thing dislodges and winds up in his throat), and instead of canceling the show, Douglas steps up to sing lead.

The film is really Douglas’s story, so it’s no surprise that Doug’s a natural at singing, which the band probably already knew anyway. Gene’s not bad, but with Doug at the helm, the band’s sound is much richer, and they immediately start to gain more of a following (and Doug a pretty girlfriend, Grace, in the form of Bella Heathcote, who you might remember from Tim Burton’s Dark Shadows last year). At this point, they’re good enough to get relatively substantial gigs and potentially even a record deal but, of course, infighting about who deserves to be the lead singer gets in the way, in addition to the regular pettiness, lack of motivation, and everything else that has ever undone promising young bands.

I recognize that that plot synopsis probably sounds fairly generic when written out like this, and in a lot of ways it is. Not Fade Away is one of those movies that’s much more interested in trying to get its audience to feel a certain way than it is in trying to tell them a good story. In fact, the story here kind of takes a backseat to the evocation of a feeling, and the film’s the better for it. All the same, Douglas’s world is depicted pretty three-dimensionally. His relationship with Grace is very well handled (to steal a phrase from local film professor Kathy Corley, Douglas has a bit of buyer’s remorse about the sexual revolution), and the treatment of a young man’s relationship with his father (here played by James Gandolfini, the only recognizable face in a great cast) is both interesting and credible. In short, watching this movie feels like what it feels like to grow up, but far less angsty and terrible in hindsight. And the music’s great, too. | Pete Timmermann

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