Relishing the sights and sounds of the early '60s with a self-indulgence that makes "Mad Men" look restrained, "The Sopranos" creator David Chase's feature debut "Not Fade Away" reaches for a grand statement about the period's intergenerational tensions and instead simply channels nostalgia. Loaded with clips of TV hits and rock singles to supplement the struggles of a college-age Jersey kid looking to get out, "Not Fade Away" is easy on the eyes and ears but light on new ideas. It's a period piece composed of familiar pieces, none of which have much to say beyond surface elements that have been explored countless times before. Using a typical coming-of-age mold, Chase turns cultural ephemera into formula.
A personal ode to the seismic change taking place in 1963, writer-director Chase's story centers on disgruntled New Jersey college kid Doug (rising star John Magaro, whose enthusiastic performance bodes well for his future), an afro-laden rock junkie constantly adorned in sunglasses whose aspirations cull from the successes of Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and virtually every other popular group of the time. He wants to hit it big with style, much to the chagrin of his hardworking blue-collar father (James Gandolfini), who casts a discouraging gaze on Doug in virtually every scene they share.
Meanwhile, Doug joins forces with a trio of likeminded wannabe rockers (Brahm Vaccarella, Jack Huston and Will Brill) to start a band, eventually wrestling his way to the frontman role, and romances a soulful local girl (Bella Heathcote). Basically, Doug chases his dreams, grasping for a piece of the celebratory atmosphere of the countercultural revolution taking place far beyond the bland suburban world holding him down.
For the first act, the tension moves along with an attentiveness to the character's plight that provides an immediate reminder of the detailed portraiture that made "The Sopranos" such a profound achievement. But Chase had years to build out the atmosphere and central dramas of that show, whereas "Not Fade Away" struggles to make its conflicts as real as the setting. Black-and-white television screens, blaring newspaper headlines and samplings of hits from the time (selected by Steven Van Zandt, the film's credited music supervisor) constantly underscore the energetic ingredients inspiring Doug's expectations for himself, but they never coalesce into anything substantial.
Instead, much of "Not Fade Away" unfolds in an episodic manner that begins in the immediate aftermath of the JFK assassination and follows Doug as he drops in and out of college while his band's dynamic grow uglier and his relationship becomes strained. Chase's writing skills are evident in individual exchanges, but the pacing suffers from a randomized feel: Here, another argument with his parents; there, some aspirational chatter with the band; rants about Vietnam and nuclear paranoia abound. At least Van Zandt's soundtrack provides a lively atmosphere to sustain the collage.
Dovetailing into the summer of love, "Not Fade Away" seems more committed to covering a lot of ground than saying anything new with its subject matter. Dealing with a period currently fetishized on "Mad Men" (created by former "Sopranos" scribe Matthew Weiner), the movie competently reassembles the time but fails to root it in engaging drama. Inexplicably narrated by the lead character's younger sister -- presumably meant to resemble yet another generation, the early stirrings of punk, as indicated by a coda involving the Sex Pistols -- "Not Fade Away" grasps to provide a grand tribute to the American youth experience, but can't match its enthusiasm with a similarly engaging purpose. You can get swept up by the details and appreciate Chase's willingness to put them on full display, but his wistfulness never reaches a deeper function. The movie is less an homage to early '60s identity crisis than a late-to-the-game example of it.
Criticwire grade: C+
HOW WILL IT PLAY? Paramount Vantage releases "Not Fade Away" on December 21. While it may receive a decent reception at the New York Film Festival and other festivals where it's set to play, the movie will have a harder time gaining commercial ground. Its awards-season prospects are largely tied to whether or not voters find Chase's screenplay emotionally compelling enough to deserve singling out.