Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Review: "Not Fade Away"

There's a moment of unintentional hilarity in "Not Fade Away," the semi-autobiographical account by "Sopranos" creator David Chase about his yearning to break into the music business during the 1960s.

The main character, Douglas, a stand-in for Chase himself, has been dragged to the cinema by his artistically inclined girlfriend. Astute film lovers will recognize the main feature as Michelangelo Antonioni's "Blow-Up," one of the most seminal films of the era. But Douglas is clearly not impressed -- he wonders why there isn't a musical score telling him when to feel happy or sad.

"Nothing ever happens in this movie," he complains.

Turns out, nothing much ever happened with Chase's rock 'n' roll aspirations, either. And the film he wrote and directed about those times and tribulations is desperately short on narrative momentum, too.

Granted, movies like this are more about mood and character than gobs of storytelling. But after awhile we feel like "Not Fade Away" is just as excuse to play a lot of really cool music and set a bunch of good-looking young actors in the foreground to pout and fret in time to the tunes.

This downbeat drama is unfocused and languid, almost to the point of being inert.

Douglas (John Magaro) is the drummer who's content to stay in the background, until the one night the cocky lead singer Eugene (Jack Huston) is out sick and he's forced to step behind the microphone, and finds out he's a more soulful crooner than anyone knew. Wells (Will Brill), the lead guitarist and somewhat loopy creative driving force, backs Douglas' move to headliner, which leads to predictable sparks amongst the group.

Things play out from late 1963, shortly after the assassination of John F. Kennedy, up to 1968 or '69. The boys are all New Jersey sons of immigrants who change superficially as the music scene does, graduating from bowl haircuts and Cuban-heeled boots to long hippie locks and bell-bottoms. They drink booze, smoke a lot of weed and get into moderate amounts of trouble.

The older generation frowns disapprovingly at their kids' commotions, led by James Gandolfini as Doug's dad. The character as written by Chase is more an archetype than a person, the sort of man who works hard, scrounges and worries, and continually seethes when his efforts aren't rewarded with success.

"Nobody gave the Italians anything when we had nothing," one of his buddies complains, summing up their generation's lament.

Supporting characters are wafer-thin. Doug's mother (Molly Price) is a shrieking harridan whose only method of control over her family is threatening suicide. Kid sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) is the narrator and eyes and ears of the audience.

Perhaps the character who best encapsulates this film's problems is Doug's erstwhile girlfriend Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote). It's a classic popular-girl-chooses-nobody scenario, and while we never really understand what Doug sees in her beyond her delicate beauty, the audience gains even lesser insight into what she cherishes about him.

The band plays some gigs, wanders apart and back together again, seems to get close to signing a record deal with a big-label honcho (Brad Garrett), but circumstances intervene with more obstacles and delays.

It's notable that the band this movie is ostensibly about never gains a permanent name. Maybe that's appropriate, since "Don't Fade Away" seems more like a concept for a film than a coherent story.

1.5 stars out of four

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