What It's About
This walk-down-memory-lane has a good beat and you can dance to it, but it treads worn territory and lacks star power. "Not Fade Away" concerns working-class drummer Doug Damiano (John Magaro) as he pursues his dream from 1963 to 1968 in suburban New Jersey.
His bellowing dad (James Gandolfini) and nagging martyr mom (Molly Price) can't figure out their rebellious shaggy-haired son, who is desperately trying to strike a rockstar pose with his garage band. His demure kid sister (Meg Guzulescu) narrates writer-director David Chase's somewhat autobiographical nostalgic exercise. Douglas loves a coveted beauty, affluent Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote), and their relationship is often rocky.
His life's journey, once so certain, gets complicated, as in all coming-of-age tales. Chase marks social and cultural touchstones through TV/movie clips and music, framing the story between Kennedy assassinations.
Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," casts Gandolfini as a schmoe beaten down by life -- the bizarro world Tony Soprano. The locale is the same but the circumstances are much different. This move isn't completely effective, because you're always reminded that Gandolfini was the iconic mob boss.
As the leading role, John Magaro lacks the charisma to sustain interest for an entire film. As Doug, he's an expressionless blank slate, and the people around him are more interesting. His bandmates have a dynamic that should have been explored further -- Jack Huston ("Boardwalk Empire") plays band leader and chick magnet Eugene, and Will Brill is preppie Wells.
Meg Guzulescu is impressive as the kid sister but unfortunately is spotlighted in one of moviedom's strangest endings ever. Luminous Bella Heathcote ("Dark Shadows") dazzles as the girlfriend -- she is definitely one to watch, as is Guzulescu.
The supporting characters are requisite era stereotypes -- the Italian-American worrywart mom, constantly yammering about her lot in life; the Old-World relatives; the hipsters out-maneuvering the dweebs to get the girls; and crazy hippie chicks denouncing their wealthy parents.
Steve Van Zandt (E Street Band, Silvio on "The Sopranos") was in charge of the music, and his soundtrack impeccably captures the era of the British Invasion and subsequent rock 'n' roll explosion.
With meticulous detail, Chase adequately sets the mood -- fashion, cars, neighborhoods, kids' basements and cool vibes.
What Doesn't Work
The story does have merit, but doesn't bring anything fresh to a familiar story that's been repeated ad nauseam. Tom Hanks' 1960s scrapbook "That Thing You Do!" is far more entertaining, as is "Diner" and similar works exalting the big bang music explosion and other watershed moments of the tumultous decade.
As a proud member of the Baby Boom generation, I want to apologize for the self-indulgence that seizes fellow Boomers and filmmakers, as talented as Chase is, as they prattle on and on and on about our benchmarks. To other generations, we must come off as self-absorbed stuck-in-the-past blowhards. OK, we saw The Beatles on Ed Sullivan, and it was life-changing, but we haven't found a cure for cancer and our kids have to provide us tech support for our electronics.
We didn't change the world like we wanted, so we need to get over ourselves. We did, however, discover wondrous music and live through a mind-boggling time. I'm always up for reflection and pinpointing times and places of my youth is a quick grin, but to turn our experiences into a vanity project without saying much isn't noteworthy.
The story threads here are all over the place. The rosy-colored glasses can get smudged easily. Enough already.
2 1/2 stars out of 4
Director: David Chase
Starring: John Magaro, Bella Heathcote, Brad Garrett, Brahm Vaccarella, Christopher McDonald, Jack Huston, James Gandolfini, Lisa Lampanelli, Will Brill
Rated: R for pervasive language, some drug use, and sexual content.