Rock and roll proves the coming-of-age crucible in Not Fade Away, Sopranos creator David Chase’s semiautobiographical feature debut of shaggy hair, shagadelic beauties, and the joy and sorrow wrought from chasing, and failing to achieve, one’s dreams. Chase’s tale of showbiz striving has, in its basic form, been told before: a suburban kid rebelling against his stuck-in-their-ways working-class parents by endeavoring to become a star, in this case, in 1960s New Jersey.
Yet writer/director Chase distinguishes his material through a careful attention to emotional rhythms, crosscutting between songs and images like a skillful maker of mixtapes. That sort of confidence is indicative of his overall craftsmanship; he subtly intertwines guitar riffs and heated passions and communicates through graceful camerawork the confusion, elation, and turmoil felt by his lead, Douglas (John Magaro), a golf course ditch-digger who dream of banging the skins in the band of his friends Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill). That goal is realized once the outfit’s original drummer takes off to Vietnam. Everything then gets complicated by internal band strife, all while cultural and social upheaval (paralleled with the upside-down universe of The Twilight Zone) swirls, leaving everyone—adult and kid alike—battered and bruised.
The world intrudes upon Douglas’s dream, but at least initially, Not Fade Away focuses on its main character’s burgeoning confidence in both music and romance. Both converge during a house party gig that—after lead singer Eugene gets sidelined sucking down a lit joint during a pre-show toke—finds Douglas stepping into the singer role, in the process impressing coveted beauty Grace (Bella Heathcote). Her encouragement to keep singing is the impetus for Douglas’s eventual rise to frontman status, a move encouraged by Wells at the expense of Eugene’s feelings.
That status elevation from wannabe–Charlie Watts to Mick Jagger–in–training is depicted by Chase with sensitivity to teens’ impressionable egos and results in increased conflict at home between Douglas and his father, the Pep Boys employee Pat (James Gandolfini). The latter is disgusted by his progeny’s poofy hair, high heels, and petulant disdain for earning a living (and Vietnam); the former is defiant toward his father’s casual intolerance (“fag” being a frequent epithet) and status quo attitudes—even though, as he grows older, Douglas slowly comes to understand the truth in Dad’s hoary maxim “Success is 10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration,” especially when it is repeated by a respected music biz agent (Brad Garrett).
If Not Fade Away seems intentionally minor and formulaic, something like a David Chase B side, it is energized by a shrewd wistfulness that honors both the nastiness and absurdity of the era. It’s especially smart about the way that generational clashes, and the tragedy they sometimes inspired, were born from a joint fear and confusion over shifting tides no one quite understood how to handle.
That’s most readily apparent in a somewhat shoehorned-in subplot about Grace’s out-of-control sister (Dominique McElligott) and her rift with her proto-yuppie father (Christopher McDonald), which culminates with her being committed for “beatnik” rebelliousness. However, it’s Douglas and Pat’s borderline-violent dynamic—which more than once finds dad threatening to beat the pulp out of his son—that’s central and given the most nuance, as Chase treats both with just the right balance of gravity and humor, respecting their sincerity and good intentions yet pricking them for their nasty prejudices and adolescent pretensions. The resulting story is reflective without being cloying, and Chase’s nostalgia—expressed with pop-culture shout-outs and Steven Van Zandt’s jam-heavy soundtrack—never succumbs to corniness.
Not Fade Away has its bumpier moments, be it band friction that’s often borderline clichéd, to ill-fitting narration from Douglas’s sister (Meg Guzulescu), including a final-moment misstep of gratuitous cutesiness. Still, Chase mostly maintains an authentic groove, never pressing his period details too hard and finding offhand humor in peripheral figures, especially Douglas’s exasperated mom (Molly Price). Even a late turn toward the tragic is handled with understated aplomb, with the film couching its sorrowful revelation as further evidence that the future is inherently, terrifyingly fragile. Chase concludes with a bittersweet recognition that disappointment is inevitable, but that belief in one’s self remains paramount. For pure, understated heartbreak, however, nothing in Not Fade Away quite tops a quiet dinner shared between father and son that, in Pat’s melancholy recollections of past romances, beautifully conveys the film’s simultaneously sad and hopeful—and, thus, mature—belief that, for better and worse, some loves must be lost so that others may be found.