erik lundegaard

Not Fade Away
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Not Fade Away (2012)

WARNING: SPOILERS

There’s an early scene in “Not Fade Away,” written and directed by David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” which encapsulates much of what we are about to see.

It begins with three teenagers on a summer night in 1964 hanging behind a curbside sewer grating and bemoaning their existence in general and lack of girls in particular. The smallest one, Douglas (John Magaro), says the following:

Nothing has ever worked for me. I got this skinny physique. I got this skuzzy complexion.

Written byDavid Chase
Directed byDavid Chase
StarringJohn Magaro
Jack Huston
Will Brill
Dominique McElligott
Bella Heathcote
James Gandolfini

CUT TO: The Rolling Stones singing “I Just Want to Make Love to You” on Hollywood Palace.

Great transition. The Stones provide Doug with an answer not only on how to get girls, with his skinny physique and skuzzy complexion, but what to do with his life. He can become a musician. He can join a band. He can become … a rock star.

More, Chase keeps the camera rolling, as it were, so we see the cultural divide the music and the hair engender. Doug’s father, Pat (James Gandolfini), watching the show with his bowl of ice cream after a day of work, looks positively disgusted by the Stones, and his reaction is echoed by, of all people, the host of Hollywood Palace, Dean Martin, who says, “Rolling Stones! Aren’t they great?” and then rolls his eyes to laughter from the crowd. He adds:

They’re going to leave right after the show for London. They’re going to challenge the Beatles to a hair pulling contest.

More laughter from the crowd and a conspiratorial smile from Pat. But their world is about to change.

“Not Fade Away,” which became the Stones’ first hit stateside, is about a band, Doug’s, that not only faded away but barely formed in the first place. It’s a slice of life about the haphazard path life can take. It’s universal in this regard, but, because it’s culled from Chase’s past, it’s specific to place (New Jersey) and time: that moment when everything the greatest generation strived for was upended by their children, the boomer generation, for whom it was striven, and who had in them an unreal idealism and an overwhelming sense of privilege.

It starts out about a girl, Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote, looking very Heather Graham circa 1998), who is always in Doug’s sites but out of his reach, not to mention out of his league. But time is on his side. Doug is asked to join the band of his friend, Gene (Jack Huston), who has a bit of a following, as its drummer; then he has to take over lead vocals when Gene, smoking pot, swallows a roach. Doug does well. In fact, he does better than Gene. A source of future conflict. His hair grows out and frizzes, he starts wearing Cuban-heel boots, he begins to look more and more like “Don’t Look Back”-era Bob Dylan. And he gets Grace.

Then he blows it, of course. She has a past? She sucked whose what? He gets into fights with his father, while his mother, Antoinette (Molly Price), an early version of Livia Soprano, is forever crossing herself. The Vietnam War is brought up, and each side takes the most inane position. It’s ill-informed pragmatism vs. lofty idealism. Is that part of the problem with the movie? We get inanity from both sides of the generation gap. Meanwhile, the best version of both sides is represented by the same family: Doug and his father. Everyone else can go to hell.

Pat is a sympathetic figure here: hair-trigger temper, sure, but hard-working, suffering cancer in silence, and sticking by his crazy wife. Doug takes the best of his father, his work ethic, and tries to push the band toward success; but his mates already have an idea of what they are and what they will be. Gene keeps wanting to do covers because that’s what “his fans” like, but he says it at his day job doing itinerant construction. Meanwhile, Wells (Will Brill) has the stages of the band’s success already worked out in his mind. He reminds me of members of the band Visiting Day from a first-season episode of “The Sopranos,” who talk about which of their lousy songs will be their first hit and which will be the second. They, and he, are about to go nowhere but in their minds.

As a slice of life, a slice of culture, and as cinematic memoir, “Not Fade Away” reminds me of a not-quite-as-resonant version of Olivier Assayas’ “Apres Mai.” Assayas’ counterpart, Gilles (Clément Métayer), goes from would-be revolutionary and into film production, while Chase’s pursues rock ‘n’ roll dreams until he cuts out for California and film school. The movie is about why the first dream doesn’t happen from the perspective of the second dream, which happened.

It’s a good movie, evocative, with great music and production values. Why doesn’t it quite work? Do we get too much of Grace’s crazy sister, Joy, and their central-casting square and conservative parents (Christopher McDonald in plaid golf pants)? The bookending narration, provided by Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), feels unnecessary, too, and her final ’60s-era dance, in the middle of the Sunset Strip, while fun, doesn’t exactly illuminate. Maybe we needed a greater focus on Doug and Pat. There are moments when Pat looks at his son, sprouting hair like a chia pet, and has no idea who he is. We feel the same.

—June 19, 2013

© 2013 Erik Lundegaard

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