Some filmmakers invite more open-mindedness than others. As creator of The Sopranos and writer of other high-quality TV shows, David Chase has earned the right to aim high in his ambitious directorial debut feature…and while the finished product is flawed, it still has much to offer. Not Fade Away is a coming-of-age movie played out against the turbulent period of the 1960s and infused with rock ‘n’ roll. That sounds like a lot of other movies we’ve seen before, but this one doesn’t look or feel like anyone else’s work.
Part of that is the New Jersey setting that Chase evokes so well, as he did in The Sopranos, and much of it is in the specificity of the characters he draws. James Gandolfini delivers a rich performance as an intolerant working-class father. He doesn’t know how to reach out to his son, whose behavior infuriates him more with each passing year, especially when he announces his intention to pursue music as a career. Molly Price, as his highly neurotic wife, expresses almost as much with a telling gesture here and a shrill outburst there. She may not have much screen time, but Chase has given her the kind of moments that fully define her. That is one of his great gifts.
John Magaro plays the son, who launches a rock band with his friends, some more dedicated than others, and falls in love with a girl from the other side of the tracks. All of this is familiar turf, yet most of it seems fresh because of the filmmaker’s observational eye.
Not Fade Away is painted on a broad canvas and takes its time in the telling. Some incidents and characters assume center stage for a short while before we move on to other matters. At times it’s hard to know where to invest one’s emotions. I wish Chase had lingered more on some of these story threads, which feel incomplete. Most of all, I wish he hadn’t ended the movie where he chose to; it feels centered in New Jersey and loses more than just momentum when it departs.
For a film that hinges so much on music, Chase and his collaborator Steven Van Zandt have made smart but often-surprising choices to summon this era, using TV kinescopes, recordings, and performances of current hits by Magaro’s band. The Rolling Stones’ notorious appearance on The Hollywood Palace is here (along with host Dean Martin’s unscripted reaction), and I guarantee you’ll never see more interesting use of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Bali H’ai.”
It’s imperfect, and overlong, but there are moments as poignant as any I’ve seen on film this year. That’s why I’m willing to cut David Chase a fair amount of slack. Most movies don’t have even one scene as good as his best work in this screenplay.