There have been plenty of coming-of-age stories about kids who started a band and made it big. “Not Fade Away” is the movie about the kids who didn’t, but you would hope that you would at least be rooting for their success.
David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” is making his film debut with this homage to the 1960s, and it’s a stylish, messy and musical look at a decade that shared all those attributes.
The film follows Douglas (John Magaro), a New Jersey Italian who hears The Rolling Stones on TV and decides starting a band is the life for him. He starts as the drummer in his group of friends playing blues covers and soon graduates to lead singer and head songwriter, winning the affections of his high school crush Grace (Bella Heathcote) along the way.
For a guy who admires the boyish, goofball charms of the Beatles and the effortless cool of the Stones, Doug and his band mates are shockingly unlikable. His demeanor is more modern hipster insouciant than hippie free spirit, and it gets in the way of the band’s talent and his romantic chemistry.
Doug is too cool to even dignify his girlfriend with a response as she compliments his singing, too egotistical to accept that he needs to work to hit it big, too wrapped up in his own culture to accept the actual African American culture of the people he admires, too pretentious to not condescend to his aunt as she tries to take an interest in his music, and too sensitive around his disapproving father (James Gandolfini).
The movie’s editing seems built around Doug’s flighty attitude, jumping through time abruptly to various family holidays and pivotal moments in ‘60s music history. Bizarre hang-ups create momentary tension in each character’s life, like when Grace’s druggie sister gets carted away to rehab, but the movie isn’t playing into the surreal nature of ‘60s cinema or the French New Wave; it’s merely a mess.
The plus is that musical director Steven van Zandt nails it with the soundtrack, managing to secure Beatles and Stones songs that would’ve cost another director a fortune, and the original songs too are perfectly period. And yet “Not Fade Away” wears them like it’s flaunting a badge of honor.
Chase fails for the same reason Doug does. It tries to stay so arty, cool and even self-aware, but it can’t bring itself to be real.
2 ½ stars