As someone well-versed in the lore and culture of the mob, New Jersey and dysfunctional Italian-American families, the most extraordinary thing about the six seasons of The Sopranos wasn’t the sharp writing, the powerful acting or the taut direction. What impressed me most was the HBO series’ adamant refusal to pander to cliché—or, when the beyond-familiar did make an appearance, to treat it with a knowing wink, not only to the audience, but from the characters.
One thinks, for example, of the many occasions when Tony’s crew would self-consciously quote from or reference The Godfather because, well, that’s the manual for how gangsters are supposed to behave. We knew it, they knew it, everyone knew it. The show would acknowledge that, then give us something fresh and amazing that we’d never expected or seen before.
Unfortunately, Not Fade Away, the first post-Sopranos project from show runner and creative force David Chase, does the exact opposite, embracing every beyond-tired trope imaginable and obscenely wallowing in soul-killing nostalgia as it tells the semi-autobiographical tale of the writer and director’s teen years playing drums and singing in a Stones-inspired garage band in suburban North Caldwell during the mid-’60s.
David Chase, North Jersey, sex, drums and rock ’n’ roll—you might think it would be impossible to strike out with that combination. Oh, would that it was so. In the end, Not Fade Away is so bad—plodding, predictable, unimaginative and deadly dull—that it makes That Thing You Do!, Tom Hanks’ 1996 film about a similar dead-end garage band during the same era, and Almost Famous, Cameron Crowe’s 2000 semi-autobiographical account of traveling with an also-ran rock band a few years later, seem like unqualified masterpieces in comparison, drenched in rose-colored cheese though both of those flicks were.
What those movies conveyed that Not Fade Away lacks is a sense of the sheer joy and incomparable sense of freedom that making an unholy racket gives the teen previously struggling to find a reason for living.
Yeah, sure, we all know that Chase has fought a lifelong battle with severe depression, a gift from his mom, just like Tony and Livia Soprano. But, lord, his alter ego Douglas (John Magaro) cracks fewer smiles leading the band in its progression from covering surf instrumentals to regurgitating Stones songs to writing Byrds-like originals than the four-count he clicks off from behind the drums to start another over-played ’60s oldie.
Sopranos veteran and moonlighting E-Streeter Steve Van Zandt has gotten a lot of props for choosing the music here, as well as joining Jersey power-pop band the Smithereens to coach the actors in the band and write the few originals they manage to produce before the inevitable split because of creative differences. But the soundtrack is a pale shadow of the deep play lists of his syndicated Underground Garage radio show.
The majority of the blame rests with Chase, however. His failure as a director is spectacular; it’s hard to comprehend how he gets nothing but a wild-eyed smirk from Jack Huston as hot-shot lead guitarist Eugene, especially when you realize that Huston does a thousand times more with half his face hidden behind a mask while playing World War I vet Richard in HBO’s current mob series Boardwalk Empire. But the writing is even worse than the direction.
We see the original drummer of the band return from Vietnam as a hardened sniper. We see the older sister of Douglas’ girlfriend, a free spirit who moves to the East Village to be a Beatnik painter, carted off to a mental hospital a la Girl, Interrupted because her parents suspect she’s “on the LSD.” We see Dougie’s immigrant dad James Gandolfini (recalling Tony Soprano by sitting on the couch and eating a lot of ice cream) rage at his long-haired son before revealing in act three that he’s really a good guy who’s just jealous of the kid’s freedom. We see the pay-your-dues lecture from the smarmy, sleazy music-biz suit (Brad Garrett). We see our hero’s younger sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) follow a similar path from goodie-goodie Catholic school kid to free spirit because, well, the times, they were a-changin’. And so on, and so on, so on.
(The running time is 110 minutes, but it feels like it’s at least a decade long.)
Chase knew he had problems here. “Everybody told me not to make this movie,” he told Steve Pond in an illuminating interview with The Wrap. But the real mistake was that the auteur who famously refused to comprise about anything on The Sopranos never stopped caving and pandering with Not Fade Away.
Concerned that the test audiences weren’t understanding the “cultural touchstones” in screenings, Chase not only added gratuitous last-minute narration from young sis Evelyn, delivered direct to camera at the start and close of the film, but a prologue of sorts (shot in black and white, of course) showing that famous meeting of Keef and Mick bonding over an armful of blues records. (What they’re doing here, who knows?)
The issue isn’t that Chase shouldn’t have made this movie. It’s that he shouldn’t have mistaken prolonged fetishization of vintage musical gear, LP covers and Cuban-heel boots as the best ways to convey the magic of making music.
While he was at it, Chase also should have avoided passages of dialogue such as Douglas responding to an aunt who says rock music keeps you young with an indignant, “Rock ’n’ roll is an art form! Does Dostoevsky keep you young?” He should have thought twice about quoting Plato. But most of all, he should have given us some slight hint that what was special about rock ’n’ roll in 1966 is the same thing that’s special about it half a century later.
It’s fun. And Not Fade Away simply isn’t.