At the New York Film Festival screening of David Chase's marvelous first feature "Not Fade Away," I felt my spirits lift a little higher with each scene until, by the time the band finally performed an original song for the first time, I was soaring, the way you're supposed to do when you forget you're on the job because there's a real live movie on screen.
1. John Magaro does a magnificent transition from nerd to stud. He's a boy who discovers his sex appeal (and loses other things) the first time he steps to a microphone in front of a crowd. Will Brill as the toxic guitarist is both funny and detestable, Jack Huston breaks your heart as Eugene, the bad singer, and yes, Bella Heathcote is fine as The Girlfriend, but mostly she's just really pretty: Dominique Mcelliogott as her drug-addled sister steals every scene she's in.
2. From a shot of James Gandolfini barbecuing for his family to an off-the-cuff insult of the music scene on the Jersey Shore, the inevitable inside-joke drinking game could send all of us Chase/Van Zandt fans to the hospital. I happen to think that's a good thing.
3. Gandolfini's moving, layered performance as a regret-filled Depression-era father will still make you forget who Tony Soprano ever was.
4. The movie does end seven minutes past its real emotional endpoint, all in order to leave you on a "Goodfellas"-style perspective shift that I'm not sure works.
5. "Not Fade Away" is probably better suited for a seven season HBO series than for a movie. You want more and less at the same time.
6. The critics are getting hung up on the tension between those last two points and missing the best part: There is no nostalgia in this film, which is incredible, considering the subject matter. And it starts right away with the opening scene, which made this viewer hear "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," as if it were — not the first time, but certainly no more than the fourth or fifth, which is perhaps even better.
In a story about what rock & roll meant and still means to young people, nothing matters more than recreating that teenaged feeling: You're half-crazed from hormones and longing, you think every song you hear was written for you and only you, you're miserable and self-conscious and angry and the only thing about it that makes it better than being old is that you are still stupid enough to believe, as one character Jagger-quotes to another early on, that time really is on your side.
The Q & A
It is in the nature of the post-screening Q&A to devolve into a forum for audience pontification, and the session following "Not Fade Away" was a Q&A to its core: Chase responded to one particularly long-winded interpretive theory with just the word "yes." EP/Music Supervisor/Rock God Steven Van Zandt, dashing as ever in purple shoes that matched both his shirt and his bandanna, wagged his fingers playfully at the crowd and said "you guys are good!"When director David Chase, EP/Music Supervisor Steven Van Zandt, producer Mark Johnson and several members of the film's exceptionally effective cast had the chance to speak, they shared their thoughts on connecting with the 1960's, becoming a band, and exploring the role early rock & roll once played in the lives of American young people.
Complete-ish, spoiler-free transcript below:
On the challenges of capturing the essence of an era:
Chase: I was trying to capture what a strange time it really was. It's not really in the movie, but especially toward the end of that era, it seemed like something major was happening every day. The assassinations, it was constant. And I was interested in doing it backwards.
NYFF Moderator Richard Pena: The actors, I don't think you were around during those particular years. I was wondering how you related to that particular time. Did you talk to folks who lived through it, like David? What kind of research did you do?
John Magaro (Douglas): I didn't grow up in the sixties. Unfortunately, because it seems like it was an interesting time. I think my generation grew up with this music still, from our parents. I know I spent my childhood driving around with my father listening to the oldies station
I think that music is kind of my defining music for America, and it's timeless — kids younger than us are still listening to that music, so I think we can relate to it that way. But also the themes in this story are pretty universal.
Will Brill (Wells): I think it was a world we could really relate to, as far as friends being good to each other, and friends being bad to each other, this was a thing that we all grew up with.
Bella Heathcote (Grace Deitz): Yeah, I think that the …dynamics were the the same, as there's so much material around that it's really helpful.
On training the actors to play
Van Zandt: Yeah. I begged David to find musicians that could act. He said forget it (laughter). "The acting must come first!" And of course he's right. So he basically found a bunch of people with no musical talent whatsoever … so we all collectively decided to go to boot camps for three months in my studio. But they were all amazingly dedicated and they all learned how to play. I mean literally, they're a band now. They all can perform — at a party, tonight. And that was hard to watch, because it took me ten years to learn what they did in just three months. I don't know how they did it.
We really got lucky with the singing though. That was something I felt very strongly about. It's really rare that you see in a movie that an actor can sell that thing about singing. I don't know why but it's very rare. And so it was important that the actual actors be able to sing… and both John and Jack. They really can play, and they are singing. I didn't want David to have to worry about that stuff, he had enough to worry about.
Jack Huston (Eugene): By the end of it we were playing a lot together. I think everyone was of the understanding that we wanted this to be as authentic as possible when we were playing. We didn't want it to be one of those glitzy movie things. So we were going tooth and nail trying to get this right. And I think one of the best things about it was that we became friends out of it. You are sort of forced together in such an intimate setting, so three months into it, of rehearsing that long, we were hanging out, we really knew each other. I'll tell you what: Everyone should do that before a movie. I don't think I'll ever have an experience like this again.
On the production process
Mark Johnson (Producer): I'd known David for a while but really just casually when a year and a half before we started shooting the first film , the first script that I read resembles — but doesn't really — the finished film. It was amazing to watch David create and then recreate, in terms of the script pages, in terms of what we shot on a daily basis, and in the editing process. So in a way this is the movie that I first read and first fell in love with, but then it's not at all.
On the relative prosperity of the era and the loss of the American Dream
Chase: Originally, for me it was all built around the music. But as I was working on the script and things were developing in the outside world, I began to see and I began to look at what I'd been around…When it was happening I wasn't paying attention to it because I was such a spoiled suburban kid, I realized that it was actually a boom time. To hear my parents tell it that wasn't the case, but when I began to realize it I tried to incorporate it into the script.
On the autobiographical nature of the film [Chase was a drummer in his teens]
I've read that too that it's autobiographical! I wouldn't say it's autobiographical, it's personal. To call the organization that I was in a band was a band is already a misnomer. I played on cardboard boxes, I never even bought a drum set.
On the original music for the movie
Van Zandt: I wish I wrote them all. I just wrote one. Part of the authenticity here is that most bands are cover bands for the first few years of their lives, or they should be. These days, not so much, and it's actually a bad thing. But most of the good bands, the Beatles, the Stones, the E Street Band, you name it, they spend a few years doing other people's songs.
On the choices of songs:
Chase: I tried to remember the songs I was interested in learning how to play, and the songs that interested me, and I sort of had this compilation for years in my head. One of the reasons I made this movie was that in the Sopranos, one of my favorite parts — maybe my favorite part — was putting the pictures and the sound together. I always have ideas for putting songs with picture, so this is really a compilation album of all my favorite songs… but we had to be logical and work it out so that the band could theoretically do it at their level of expertise, and also that these guys could do with their particular voices. Plus there were the two sides, the band songs and the soundtrack songs.
On the rock & roll revolution
Chase: The revolution was bought out. Nike and those people said "we'll take it and we'll sell shoes with it." And that was very much on my mind and…you know I don't want to do this thing of blabbing about the 60s an how great they were, but one thing I have to say: The music was great. And I've always felt like I was really lucky to be living at that age at that time, that I was living through one of the best musical periods ever. The music at that time was a way into everything, at least for me, and for a lot of people I know too. That's when I first learned about art, poetry, fashion, humor, film, it all came from rock & roll. That's how I found my way into politics…ROLLING STONE was a magazine that was formed right as this movie is ending. And that was a rock & roll magazine, but everything was in it. Everything was filtered through that magazine.
On choosing to have the movie narrated by the main character's little sister:
Chase: I just liked the idea that there was this really quiet little kid at the beginning of the movie — you weren't really focusing on her, but she was there all along. She's not a participant, she's not in a band, she's just part of the audience. And you weren't paying attention to her because she's "just a kid."