The highlight of Not Fade Away, a meandering and bittersweet coming-of-age story, is its killer '60s pop-rock soundtrack.
Well-observed but occasionally disjointed, it's a film (** 1/2 out of four; rated R; opening Friday nationwide) that's more about thematic tone, sound and images than plot.
E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt (who also played Silvio in The Sopranos) curates the music in this big-screen directorial debut of Sopranos creator David Chase. Like that seminal HBO series, Not Fade Away is set in New Jersey and co-stars James Gandolfini. But the suburban world it chronicles is worlds away from Tony Soprano's Bada Bing! and other Mob hangouts.
This story is set in the mid-1960s and focuses on Douglas (John Magaro), who is in a band and yearns to be a famous rocker. His dad (Gandolfini) is inflexible and authoritarian - he hates his son's anti-war stance, Dylan-esque hair and Mod wardrobe. His favorite insult: "You look like you just got off the boat."
The film has enough minor plot threads for a miniseries, and that's where Chase trips up, even though he created one of the best dramatic series of all time. Character is revealed over time and can change in believable ways in episodic television. But here, Chase crams a lot into a two-hour film, and while some of it works, not all of it does.
Not Fade Away is on stronger footing when it focuses on the main story of Douglas' artistic evolution from musician to filmmaker. When it digresses into the tales of his friends or their relatives, it falters.
This is particularly true in a plot thread involving the druggy sister (Dominique McElligott) of Douglas' girlfriend who is institutionalized by her parents. There are several story lines like this that feel shoehorned into the larger tale. The romance between Douglas and Grace (Bella Heathcote) seems perfunctory. And while Douglas' spunky younger sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) is a more intriguing female character, she's given little to do.
Like Douglas, Chase grew up in New Jersey suburbia and played rock covers as a teen. If the movie is read as autobiography, it was music that inspired Chase's film aspirations. Douglas says "I like the idea of putting music together with film," and Chase's fascination with the same was brilliantly evident in The Sopranos and here.
The soundtrack is an eclectic sampling of some of the best '60s tunes, from lesser-known bands like The Left Banke to famous rockers like the Kinks and Rolling Stones, that effectively evokes the era. The times were indeed a-changing, and that message is poignantly communicated in a wordless montage where Douglas' dad watches South Pacific as Douglas and Grace arrive at a California beach.
As the saga of a teenager who wants to be a rock star, then gradually realizes he won't achieve that dream, Not Fade Away sometimes feels a trifle worn. But as an affectionate tribute to rock 'n' roll and a moody look at the '60s, it makes a more powerful impression.
'Not Fade Away' Clip: Home From College