New Jersey is thought to be nation’s armpit, a wasteland typified by cultural aberrations like “Jersey Shore” and “The Real Housewives,” a sea of highways, shopping malls, and neon-lit diners. However, New Jersey is also “The Garden State:” fresh green lawns leading to rows of split-level houses, where families gather ‘round to meals at Chili’s and go mini-golfing. It’s a place as comforting as a greasy bacon, egg, and cheese sandwich. In the 1964 landscape of David Chase’s “Not Fade Away,” suburban New Jersey youth Douglas (John Magaro) his rock band try to get away from suburbia and “make it” in New York City. But New Jersey won’t let them go. It has an intrinsic pull on them, sucking them back into the place where they feel nostalgically complacent.
This same attitude toward New Jersey is manifested in many various forms of pop culture — from Bon Jovi’s “Living on a Prayer” to Zach Braff’s hipster dramedy “Garden State” — but most notably in other realms of the David Chase/Steven Van Zandt universe. Van Zandt, both the Executive Producer and the Music Supervisor of “Not Fade Away,” is made man Silvio Dante on Chase’s “The Sopranos” — perhaps the most iconic New Jersey television series ever — and a member of Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band — perhaps the most iconic New Jersey band ever. “The Sopranos” and Springsteen’s musical oeuvre enhance our understanding of both the attraction to and repulsion of New Jersey.
As “Not Fade Away” begins, the characters are all about to leave high school in New Jersey, and scatter to different states for college. Yet, that summer, Eugene and Wells (Jack Huston and Will Brill) ask Douglas if he will join their The Rolling Stones-obsessed rock band. This band becomes a major tethering force to their home state — every winter break and summer they reconvene and play shows, with Douglas even describing the band as his “true family.”
His “true family” isn’t as committed to making it in New York City as Douglas, though. When the time comes for the band to record a demo, for instance, Wells insists that they aren’t ready. Douglas pushes him, and the demo is recorded, but there are more excuses to come. When Douglas later suggests to Eugene that they move to the East Village, where there is more of a “rock scene,” Eugene falters, saying that he owes it to his home state to remain a musical presence in New Jersey. Douglas, somewhat hypocritically, quits school to focus on the band — by moving to an apartment in New Jersey.
“The Sopranos” deals with similar themes in regards to the Garden State. Take the show’s opening: the camera tracks Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini, who also plays Douglas’ father in “Not Fade Away”) as he drives from New York City to his New Jersey mini-mansion. While at times a vicious mob boss, he is also tied to the warmth of familial suburban life. One episode of “The Sopranos,” in particular, deals with the desire to leave New Jersey, as well as impulse to stay — Season One’s “College” (co-written by Chase). In the episode, Carmela (Edie Falco) falls ill, and Tony has to drive their daughter Meadow (Jamie-Lynn Sigler) to New England for college interviews. Tony is incredibly proud that Meadow is poised to go to college, since he just fell into the mob and missed out on that opportunity in his own youth. He tells her, “There was a time when Italian people didn’t have a lot of options… maybe I was too lazy to think for myself.” He is bursting with pride that Meadow holds the promise of making it out of his family’s trap. In later episodes, however, Meadow ultimately decides on going to Columbia, staying within her family’s comfortable orbit.
What lure does New Jersey have exactly? Unlike the case with many other states, parts of it are mere minutes from New York City, which should make relocation easy. While there are indeed many New Jersey transplants there, New York City’s close proximity can be a looming, overwhelming force on suburbanites. In “Not Fade Away,” Eugene is a local rock god. Girls flock to the band’s shows and flirt with him during his guitar solos, as he channels his idol, Keith Richards. At home, he is king; in New York City, he would be one of thousands trying to make it. He would have to work hard to set himself apart from the rest. And that is a scary proposition.
New Jersey, however, offers him the security of living in his mother’s house as well as a small, solid base of adoring fans — it is his comfort zone. Like Tony Soprano, he falls into the trap of New Jersey’s stasis. He works as a mechanic, presumably the latest in a long line of mechanics in his family, and probably always will, falling into a pattern much simpler than diverging on his own path.
Similarly, Bruce Springsteen introduced the simultaneous push and pull of New Jersey in his iconic anthem, “Born to Run”:
“The highways jammed with broken heroes on a last chance power drive
Everybody’s out on the run tonight but there’s no place left to hide
Someday girl I don’t know when we’re gonna get to that place
Where we really want to go and we’ll walk in the sun
But till then tramps like us, baby we were born to run”
These lyrics connote the way leaving New Jersey is difficult, even for those who want to — the highways are literally clogged with people who want to ditch their home state in an attempt to “make it,” as the boys in the film try to do. However, the lyrics are duplicitous. “Someday” is an indefinite, far-off word — the band in the film thinks that they will make it “someday” too, but that is just a hope that keeps them going and playing gigs. Also, the very state of being “born to run” is an innate desire to leave home, a drive that lingers despite oftentimes remaining in the same place.
In “Not Fade Away,” Douglas is certainly “born to run.” In the wake of the band’s dissolution, he follows his longtime girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote) to Los Angeles so they can both follow different dreams. Grace wants to study to be a veterinarian and Douglas wants to go to UCLA Film School. Excited at this new opportunity, the young couple hops in their car, poised to drive cross-country, and wave goodbye to Douglas’ parents (Gandolfini and Molly Price) who stand on their well-manicured lawn. They cross many state lines until they arrive at their destination, where they may or may not be at the same house party as The Rolling Stones. Douglas loses Grace at the party and tries to hitchhike back to where they are staying. When he looks up at the sky, he notices the same configuration of stars as he did when he was home with his bandmates at the height of their hopefulness. His thumb goes back in the air — will he hitchhike back to New Jersey, or instead hold the memories of band in a fond place in his heart? To him, New Jersey is, at once, a place to run from, and a place where he can walk in the sun.
A New Jersey native herself, Caitlin Hughes has an MA in Cinema Studies from Tisch, and has done various stuff in film, ranging from non-profit to PR to film programming. You can read more of her articles on Film School Rejects, or follow her on Twitter. This piece is part of Indiewire and the Film Society of Lincoln Center’s Critics Academy at the New York Film Festival. Click here to read all of the Academy’s work.