For David Chase, the writer and director of Not Fade Away, rock 'n' roll music has a seductive yet combustible allure. It's a thing that can build and destroy relationships with equal, effortless fervor. It can hypnotize some while alienating others. It's the greatest thing ever invented, yet the hardest to re-create. It can aggravate you, but it can also be your salvation. Rock 'n' roll—can't live with it, can't live without it. Am I right, fellas?
Chase is mainly known as the Man Who Changed Television Forever when he created the HBO mob drama The Sopranos (itself a show famous for rock-filled soundtrack selections, usually hand-picked by Chase). In this, his feature filmmaking debut, he goes full-on semi-autobiographical, taking us back to the New Jersey in the early '60s. His fictive stand-in is Douglas (spunk-filled newcomer John Magaro), a decent kid and aspiring drummer who gets hit with the rock bug when the British Invasion reaches our shores. As moptopped bands like The Beatles and The Rolling Stones infect kids' minds with their American blues-infused rock, Douglas makes up his mind what he wants to be. Soon, the clean-cut teen, who once discussed with his dad (played by Tony Soprano himself, James Gandolfini, more melancholy than menacing) the possibility of joining ROTC when he gets to college, grows his hair in a frizzy fro, joins a band and gets into fights with the old man about Vietnam.
Of course, being in a band means you get all the ladies. But Douglas has his eye on one in particular: longtime high-school crush Grace (Australian actress Bella Heathcote). After she catches him singing lead at a party one night, Grace instantly sees the budding rock star in him. A soulful romance eventually develops.
We learn, however, that being in a rock band has its disadvantages. Douglas butts heads with the band's ego-driven leader (Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston), who'd rather stay in Jersey, sing lead and do covers instead of relinquishing singing duties to superior vocalist Douglas, who's itching to leave town, write original material and make it big.
For all its wall-to-wall rock cues and archival performance clips, Not Fade Away is really a quiet, nostalgic affair. Since Chase has a flair for being subtle when it comes to telling stories chock full of imploding moments, the movie has a somber, Paul Mazursky-esque tone. However, the most amusing thing about this movie is how Chase paints rock 'n' roll as a bigger menace to American society at the time than the Russians.
It's always funny seeing how young guys growing their hair long and listening to rock music used to drive the older folk up the wall, thinking they were either wasting their life away or—even worse to them—gay. (One revealing moment has Gandolfini's dad watching a TV variety show where The Rolling Stones are performing, followed by an eye-rolling Dean Martin condescendingly making quips about the band, which Gandolfini approves of with a grunt.)
However, as the movie states, for young people, rock 'n' roll was a light at the end of a dull, conservative tunnel, a way out of the square suburbs—and for the movie's protagonist, a way to separate himself from his family's bleak nuttiness.
As with The Sopranos, Chase revisits themes of family dysfunction and mental illness lurking within suburb walls. Douglas is surrounded by mentally unhinged folk, including his overdramatic, nightmare-plagued mom (Molly Price, basically playing a less sinister Livia Soprano) and Grace's bohemian sister (Dominique McElligott), who gets sent to a mental institution for her behavior.
And, just as he notoriously did with The Sopranos, Chase ends the movie ambiguously (and annoyingly), coming up with an odd, lumbering, mostly silent coda that leaves our hero uncertain about the future but certain rock music will be there for him every step of the way. (I think that's it.) While Chase may still have trouble knowing how to end a story, he does pen an adoring, personal, cinematic love letter to rock 'n' roll. As the title oh-so-obviously implies, it's a love that will—well, you know.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Halcyon past, scary present."