Capitalizing on a built-in font of nostalgia, and a can’t miss British Invasion soundtrack, “Not Fade Away” is a blatantly irresistible coming-of-age story, whose only potential fault is indeed its likability. The feature film directorial debut of “Sopranos” creator David Chase, a group of would be musicians play songs you already know and love in various New Jersey basements and garages. They grow out their hair, smoke, and wax obnoxiously poetic about music, art, racism and Vietnam. It infuriates their parents, one of whom is none other than James Gandolfini. What’s not to like?
Other than Gandolfini, the cast is relatively unknown, which was one of my favorite parts about the film. Ever heard of John Margaro? Me neither! He’s a compelling little fellow, and he plays Douglas, a shy drummer who slowly gets cooler and tries to gain control of the band started by Eugene (Jack Huston.) He gets a chance to show off his voice when Eugene accidentally swallows a joint at a party (classic!) and I defy you to not enjoy his moody cover of “Time is on My Side.”
This finally gets the attention of the gorgeous, winsome gamine Grace, played by the unearthly Bella Heathcote, who I suspect, like Mila Kunis, has had her eyes enlarged in some deal with the Devil. Douglas has been under the spell of those big eyes since high school, when she didn’t give him the time of day, but he slowly gains confidence, coolness and attention.
This is familiar, beloved, territory, and viewers happily fall under the spell of various British mop tops and their rock music, just like the kids in the film. So it is particularly unnecessary to have the film intermittently narrated by Douglas’s young sister. We really do not, at this point, need to be alerted to the existence of the Summer of Love. In a film that verges too closely at times to cliché, less is more.
“Not Fade Away,” with its historical context, functions most successfully when it hews closer to the individual stories of its characters, and avoids “Forrest Gump” territory. It was touchingly comic to hear the self-assured band members talking about their future press junkets in terms of when, not if, and no matter how many times you see such naïve dreams played out onscreen, in the hands of compelling actors such as these, you still think this time will be different. No matter how many times a gruff dad threatens his young son over a haircut, or lack thereof, someone like Gandolfini can still make it worth watching.
I particularly liked the eyes of the younger sister, taking in everything, and we know from watching her — ‘twas ever thus. Which is why I literally howled when she stepped out in the film’s final minute and a half and gave a little summary speech, like Puck, and then danced. Danced! I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. The rest of the film was handled with restraint and delicacy, and yet we were subjected to an utterly unnecessary explanation, in which the narrator/ sister suddenly refers to a term paper about rock and roll. I’d like to see the behind-the-scenes film about how that happened — is she the director’s daughter? What a weird and terrible final moment. When you see Douglas looking up at the Capitol Records building, grab your remote and snap the film off and you’ll be fine.
One of the central arguments among the band members is between learning and playing covers of songs, or writing their own original music. In a way, the film is like a good cover of a song everyone loves. We know what’s coming, it isn’t terribly original, but it’s hard not to like it. You won’t discover a new sound that you’ve never heard before, but you’ll sit back and sing along.