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Movie Review: David Chase’s NOT FADE AWAY Is Very Messy and Oddly Alluring

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The Post-Masterpiece Blues are never easy for a successful artist, but I’d wager there are few people who feel it more intensely than David Chase.  From 1999 to 2007, Chase was responsible for the HBO television series “The Sopranos.”  To call the show a hit is selling it short; besides the many, many acting and production awards “The Sopranos” won, it established cable television as a dramatic powerhouse capable of competing with cinema and literature’s best.  That’s not hyperbole; go to Amazon.com right now and search for all the “Sopranos”-related products that have cropped up over the last fourteen years (go ahead; I’ll wait).

All of which is to say that Chase’s follow-up project, the period rock-and-roll drama Not Fade Away, was destined to face scrutiny; after you scale Everest, everything else looks disappointing by comparison.  Further complicating matters: this is Chase’s first feature-length film, and it shows.  “The Sopranos” might have trafficked in bizarre symbolism and inexplicable plot twists, but it benefitted from television’s greatest luxury: the long-form narrative.  No matter how weird things got, the presentation was always slick and crisp because Chase and his team had the freedom to develop everything at their own pace.

Making movies, on the other hand, takes a different kind of discipline, and I’m not sure Chase has mastered it.  Ostensibly, this is the story of Doug Damiano (John Magaro), a teenage palooka from 1960s New Jersey who joins a band in the hopes of finding fame and fortune, but Chase denies Doug’s journey any kind of meaningful through-line.  We meet the key people in Doug’s life – his squabbling bandmates (Jack Huston, Will Brill, and Brahm Vaccarella), his spacey girlfriend Grace (the beautiful Bella Heathcote), his angry father (James Gandolfini) – but we rarely get to know any of them.  Scenes happen as if at random, with major actions brutally truncated (I’m thinking of the incarceration of Heathcote’s disturbed older sister, which feels like it belongs in a different movie) and minor incidents interrupted by interludes of months or years.  For a picture as slight as Not Fade Away is, it had a massive post-production period, and executive producer and music supervisor Steven Van Zandt has said that Chase’s original cut ran about three hours long.  That feels about right – this current iteration runs 112 minutes and plays like a highlight reel of a much longer work.

And yet, as unsatisfying and frustrating as much of Not Fade Away is, I haven’t been able to shake it.  David Chase might be a sixty-seven-year-old veteran in American entertainment, but his work here is messy and alluring in the ways that most artists’ first works are.  There’s a crude vitality here; I thought of Who’s That Knocking at My Door more than once, and of Charles Burnett’s Killer of Sheep.  Chase might bungle every narrative transition and editorial connection that comes his way, but the vignettes come pouring out of him.  The effect is like memory, with different scenes slamming up against each other in a rush, trying – and often failing – to structure themselves into something coherent but always maintaining a certain lost fascination.

Like “The Sopranos,” Chase is using the medium to defy our expectations.  That show was a philosophical discourse masquerading as a gritty crime saga, and Not Fade Away is a rags-to-riches story that never leaves the “rags” stage.  Whereas movies like That Thing You Do and Almost Famous deal with the trials and tribulations of celebrity, Doug and his band never make it: they never even come close.  It’s a maddening, unique spin on a tired genre – his group has all the ego of the Rolling Stones or the Who but none of the drive, and Chase luxuriates in their stasis.

Anyone familiar with “The Sopranos” will recognize Chase’s gift for conveying a visceral sense of time and place.  It isn’t just that he nails the décor of 1960s New Jersey, although production designer Ford Wheeler and a team that includes art director Henry Dunn, set decorator Cherish Magennis, and costume designer Catherine Marie Thomas deserve some kind of award for resurrecting the decade’s ghosts as precisely as they do here; Chase reflects a lost time through Formica kitchens and basement dens better than his occasionally on-the-nose dialogue does (when “The Wire’s” Isiah Whitlock Jr. started awkwardly pontificating about all the relevant African-American leaders of the times, I had a brief, sudden flashback to “The Sopranos’” terrible “Christopher” episode).

Chase gets the tragedy of being surrounded by temporal events beyond your control and knowing there’s very little you can do to assert your own will.  In one of the features on the Blu-ray, Van Zandt talks about how the 1960s were the only time when musical and political revolutions would occur in a matter of months rather than years, and the characters in Not Fade Away are constantly overwhelmed by that fact.  Doug hears the Beatles and the Rolling Stones and desperately wants access to that lifestyle, but he can’t shake the feeling that none of what he’s seeing is actually real (his favorite show is “The Twilight Zone,” and I’m still not sure whether that detail is genius or embarrassingly obvious – maybe it’s both).

His father fights him for the same reason; he can’t believe that the dream of the Nuclear Family has collapsed under rock-and-roll and social change, and Gandolfini is genuinely touching as a tough guy who grows more delicate as he realizes that his own life has stalled, perhaps permanently, in middle age.  A dinner scene between him and Doug ranks among the best things Chase has ever written – Gandolfini lets some of that regret seep out of him, and his candor terrifies Doug, who can’t imagine hearing his dad be so vulnerable.  Across the board, the pervasive tone is that of life spinning faster than anyone can handle.

Never is this feeling more pronounced than in Not Fade Away‘s surreal, disturbing final moments.  Chase has absorbed more than a little Michelangelo Antonioni; he has Grace literally vanish from the picture and then strands Doug in Los Angeles, trying to bum a ride through the city’s empty streets after glimpsing Charlie Watts strolling through a Hollywood Hills party.  It’s a perfect metaphor for the myth of the Peace and Love era – a flower child who showed up late to the party wanders alone in a world that doesn’t care about him.

And then, Chase concludes the film on a beat so audacious it makes the end of “The Sopranos” look safe.  Like the rest of the picture, it’s simultaneously nervy and ludicrous, and I certainly forgive you if it makes you laugh in all the wrong ways.  But I found this overwrought, silly capper an oddly perfect resolution to an oddly imperfect movie.  Chase knows he can’t have the last word on the 1960s, so he tries to say all the words, even if no one’s listening.  The moment takes your breath away.  So does the movie, if only a little.

Paramount’s Blu-ray looks and sounds phenomenal; Eigil Bryld’s digital cinematography has the warmth and texture of film, and the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio roars to life during the many musical interludes.

Features are definitely more substantial than I was expecting.  We get a thirty-six-minute behind-the-scenes documentary (the three-part “Basement Tapes” feature) that has lots of good details about character and plot motivations and five minutes of deleted scenes.  Only the “Building the Band” featurette disappoints; it’s just an abbreviated version of the “Basement Tapes.”

Not Fade Away streets on April 30th.  Click HERE for Amazon’s listing.