When I first saw Not Fade Away I caught it as the opening film of the Austin Film Festival and wrote thus: “ Not Fade Away was a dramedy set against the growth of rock and roll in the ‘60s, with the particular emphasis focused on an aspiring New Jersey rock band. Not Fade Away has many highlights including some awesome chiaroscuro lighting, superb production values, a finely tuned list of songs from the era, but most of all the dialog and direction of David Chase. (Chase’s credits range from writing and producing ‘70s show The Rockford Files to writing, directing and producing what many consider one of the top cable shows ever, The Sopranos.)”
Also at the AFF, Chase noted in a panel discussion that “I got plenty of notes” from studio Paramount. Chase then stated that after the second season of The Sopranos he never got notes because nobody was doing anything better. “Every time a group like the Stones or Beatles released an album it was a quantum leap in music, this was happening on a yearly basis.”
Seeing Not Fade Away for a second (and third) time this month only reinforced my notion that it’s an instant genre classic, as far removed from gangsters as it is from other films about people starting bands (think That Thing You Do or Eddie and the Cruisers). Not Fade Away casts a large net of characters that it then moves back and forth to examine their lives under the influence of cultural upheaval.
Chase tosses in a few curves such as his manner of switching perspective amongst the characters. While we think this is the story as told by Douglas (John Magaro) in actuality the narrator is Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), which is enforced in a surreal ending where she literally dances onto the screen, breaks the fourth wall and addresses the audience with her college report on America’s two top exports, nuclear weapons and rock and roll. Moments before Doug has been wandering the wind swept streets of nighttime Los Angeles like an aimless character in an Antonioni movie. You see these characters do fade away.
Doug’s relationship with his father (James Gandolfini, bringing the goods) is mirrored in his relation with his boss of sorts, Isiah Whitlock Jr. with whom Doug finds work as a laborer after he drops out of college to seek fame as a rock musician. Doug can’t believe that Whitlock isn’t hip to hardcore blues despite his being black. When Whitlock suggests Doug listen to Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett Doug explodes “But he’s Italian,” rejecting his own heritage and roots. Likewise Doug seems hard pressed to warm up to his father’s views even when they have a meeting of the minds involving Doug becoming the man of the house.
Chase fills blank spaces with media images of the era, whether it’s the old man crashed on a sofa watching reruns of The Twilight Zone or supporting cast members waking out of a dream to hear The Beatles for the first time on the radio. In particular the film opens with a dynamic cut of white rockers doing the twist in a bandstand type setting to a short black-and-white sequence that imagines a youthful meeting between Mick Jagger and Keith Richards on a train. Only here does the film segue into the story proper – the Stones or television aren’t the main characters at all but the influences that propel the story’s characters. In a sense Not Fade Away is the story of all of us who vicariously live our dreams in the shadows of our idols.