All those years David Chase was getting rich off his mob soap opera, The Sopranos, what he really wanted to do was get the band back together.
Not Fade Away, his big-screen writing and directing debut, is the cinematic equivalent of a memory play, an impressionistic recollection of the '60s, what it was like to discover rock and roll, to emulate your rock heroes, to embrace weed, grow your hair and infuriate your parents with your college-bred concern for civil rights, the Vietnam War, and pursuit of dreams over career.
The problem is, nobody told Chase his memories of the era have long been clichés.
Douglas (John Magaro) is a Jersey Boy, an Italian-American drummer who sees the older boys getting attention from girls at his high school talent show and joins a band. Jack Huston is Gene, the handsome guitar hero whose ambitions are as limited as his singing. Will Brill is Wells, the pseudo-intellectual of the ensemble, which never really has a name, though they kick around the idea of calling themselves the Lord Byrons in those early days, just after the JFK assassination and the British Invasion.
They take their cues from the Rolling Stones, worshipping American blues. When they cover the movie's Buddy Holly title song, they do it with the Bo Diddley Beat, in the manner of the Stones.
Chase's film, narrated by Douglas' younger sister (Meg Guzulescu), follows these guys through standard Let's start a band mileposts —the first power struggle (Douglas becomes lead singer), defections and firings, countless gigs, recording a demo, meeting with a would-be manager (Brad Garrett). There's a hint of college, and the coming-of-age off-and-on romance between Douglas and model-thin rich girl Grace (Bella Heathcoate).
The characters are thinly drawn, though the actors aren't bad, and they really are singing and playing their instruments. Their one original song, a ringing imitation of the Byrds' Roger McGuinn, feels utterly authentic. No, they never would have made it. And no, they're the only ones who fail to realize that.
Not Fade Away is just as soap operatic as Sopranos, with Douglas' parents (James Gandolfini and Molly Price) raging through a troubled marriage, Douglas learning of the girlfriend's sexual past and Grace's artistically rebellious sister Joy (Dominique McElligott) tumbling into drugs.
Gandolfini's working-class dad is forever threatening the kid, bellowing that with his sissy Cuban-heeled boots, loud clothes and long hair, You look like you just got offa the boat. The line resonates, so Chase has him repeat it — for years. Gandolfini has a great confessional scene, coming way too late in the narrative to make a difference.
The over-familiar narrative is delivered in episodic bites, jumping characters, settings and years. Douglas and Grace sit through the classic ‘60s film Blow Up, and the boy complains, What kind of movie IS this?
Precisely. Not Fade Away is an original, absurdly self-conscious take on a seriously unoriginal narrative. Overlong, ambitious, but sketchy, dated and jammed with incidents and F-bombs, you'd never guess it was from a guy who spent his working life in TV, where he had entire seasons to weave his melodrama.
Or that he somehow failed to realize this formula was well-past-played when Tom Hanks offered the superior That Thing You Do back in the last century.