The Wikipedia page for “Not Fade Away” is one of the saddest I’ve ever seen. A single line about its director and release date, an incomplete cast list, and a couple of links. That’s it. The Wikipedia page for “Iron Man 3,” by point of comparison, is almost 9,000 words long. And “Not Fade Away” wasn’t some tiny independent from an unknown filmmaker — it was the feature directorial debut of David Chase, who, as the creator and guiding force behind “The Sopranos,” made one of the greatest and most iconic television shows in the medium’s history. A couple of lines on Wikipedia and a pitiful $600,000 box office gross, and “Not Fade Away” was well on its way to becoming nothing more than a footnote on a brilliant pop culture resume. As I wrote in January when I included “Not Fade Away” on my list of the best movies of 2012, its title is like some kind of cruel joke. Not fade away? Sorry, no. That’s exactly what your movie’s going to do.
How does this happen? How does the guy who made arguably the best TV show in history makes a movie full of all the things that made that show wonderful — rich, compelling characters, note-perfect dialogue, dead-end New Jersey living, James Gandolfini — without it becoming at least a moderate hit? There are practical reasons to consider, like the glut of bigger prestige movies around its late December release date and its surprisingly lukewarm critical reaction (just a 69% on Rotten Tomatoes and a B on our own Criticwire Network), but they all seem small in the face of a great movie with a great pedigree. Sometimes on this job, you can see a hit or a flop coming a mile away. And sometimes all your instincts for what audiences want are proven wildly incorrect. How does this happen?
Someone much smarter than me will have to explain it. In meantime, you should know that “Not Fade Away” is out now on DVD and Blu-ray. If you liked “The Sopranos,” if you’re a fan of ’60s garage rock, do yourself a favor: watch this movie.
Even with all of Chase’s television skills imported to the big screen, “Not Fade Away” didn’t feel like a TV show on the big screen. While he may be best known (for now) as a writer and producer, Chase is also a superb director, one who understands the interplay between sound and image as well as anyone in Hollywood, and who can tell stories with pictures just as effectively as he can with words. Note the economy of simple but powerful transitions like the one that blends the drone of an Emergency Broadcast System test with the rough and ragged chords of the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” or the perfect symmetry of the opening and closing scenes — in the first, the camera pans from a movie theater to a music store; in the second, the action is reversed. In short order, Chase builds an entire world in mid-’60s suburban New Jersey, populated by aspiring rocker Doug (John Magaro), his band The Twylight Zones, and his working-class Italian family (Gandolfini plays his loving but frustrated father). Doug’s band is accomplished (with music written by Chase’s old “Sopranos” co-hort Steven Van Zandt) but success remains elusive. Doug kindles a relationship with a beauty named Grace (Bella Heathcote), but life has other plans for both of them.
Some reviews criticized Chase for making Doug and his bandmates too unsympathetic (because, I guess, we all watched “The Sopranos” because Tony was such a sweet guy) and for cramming “an entire TV season’s worth of narrative,” in the words of one writer I spoke with last year, into an 110 minute movie. Both decisions, though, were crucial to “Not Fade Away”‘s impact. Rather than evoke the 1960s, Chase evokes what it feels like to remember the 1960s — recreating this particular time and place that exists only in his mind. Naturally, that memory is selective. The big moments remain; the little ones fade away.
It’s been a few months since anyone dove into the film-versus-television-and-which-is-better debate, and I’m not going to restart it now, but I am going to make one observation. Chase made “The Sopranos” on television and he was more than accepted; his ideas and intelligence practically revolutionized the entire medium. Then he moved to film, bringing the same level of sophistication and nuance, and what happened? Nobody cared. I still love film. But the fact that a genius can have so much success in one medium and so little in the other is deeply discouraging — and maybe very telling about the state of adult storytelling in both industries.
Movies’ continuing advantage, though, is that there’s no such thing as cancellation in this world. You can watch “Not Fade Away” tonight and be all caught up. And then you can tell other people to watch it. Hopefully one of them will take a few minutes and update that pathetic Wikipedia page.