Not Fade Away Needs a Decent Script

Directed and Written by David Chase
Paramount, 112 minutes, R (brief nudity, language)
* * *

 Not Fade Away has thrilled some critics and chilled others. Most viewers are likely to experience it as a classic 3 of 5 stars movie. Grade it C, an A for ideas, music, and class awareness and an F for scriptwriting.

The setting is New Jersey in the 1960s, specifically the time period in which grief over President Kennedy’s assassination inexorably gave way to the giddiness of the early British Invasion. It was, of course, also the time in which the first wave of Baby Boomers came of age, discovered the Generation Gap, and began to articulate value systems quite different from those of their parents. The protagonist of our story is nerdy, pimply Doug (John Magaro), a working-class kid with very little luck with girls but one helluva record collection of black R & B records, a drum set he’s learning to play, and an emerging perception that his town is too small for him. His companions are just like him–guys with not-so-bright prospects, wild ideas, and an abiding love of the new music they’re hearing. Doug’s best friend, Eugene (Jack Huston), plays pretty good guitar and fancies himself a vocalist, though he’s really a copycat channeling others. Before long, a musical dream begins to play out in the basement of a down-market small town. We watch Doug morph into a guy who looks like Dylan, dresses like Dylan, sings like Dylan, and writes songs like Dylan. The open question is how far talent can take the band, and part of that answer depends on whether it can stay together, or if some of the band members even want the fame, travel, and spotlight they claim they desire.

I enjoyed the class dynamics of this film. At times I was reminded so much of my own teen years in a blue-collar Pennsylvania town that it’s as if I knew some of the people populating the film. I certainly recognized the tension between those chomping at the bit to leave, those content to be the big fish in a poi pond, and those whose deficiencies (intellectual, monetary, imaginative) cemented them in place. Blue-collar dreams are not often presented in American movies and director/writer David Chase hits a lot of correct notes, including the manner in which wage earners often held stereotypical views of the middle class. Doug’s “unobtainable” desire is Grace Dietz (Bella Heathcote), the younger daughter of pretentious parents who only appear to be high on the totem when viewed from the bottom. Certainly Doug’s working-class stiff father, Pat (James Gandolfini), sees them that way. Like lots of dads during the era, his ideal scenario for Doug is a bit of college, some ROTC training, and then home to earn a paycheck.  We all know what Vietnam did to that sort of dream.

Not Fade Away captures the look of blue-collar life–the crowded ranch houses, the Formica counters, TV trays, the faux wood paneling…. You can almost smell the mold in the shag carpeting. It also has a killer soundtrack–iconic blues, 50s skiffle, pop hits from the 60s, and some pretty nice original stuff. Alas, this is where the good ends and the bad begins. Chase may or may not be a good director, but he’s not much of a writer. There’s more enigma in his script than in the average Dylan song. Chase was born in 1945 and is clearly enamored to the music and culture of his youth. Alas, he tries to jam in everything. What we get isn’t the 1960s so much as cartoon and poster images of it–a JFK image here, a Rolling Stones concert snippet there, dropped references to civil rights, oblique mentions of Vietnam….  His episodic cameos are like his blue-collar interiors:  all surfaces. Chase is certainly correct to present small town America as a place where the 60s came in through the backdoor, but his skip-the-stone approach leaves us with characters that change for no apparent reason.

A stronger cast would have helped. Gandolfini–who is always good–is the closest thing to a “star” in this lineup. A small film such as Beasts of the Southern Wild can shine with no-name actors–of the right quality. John Magaro is very good and Jack Huston–John Huston’s grandson–is competent. The rest, not so much. It’s hard to judge whether the actresses are any good or not, as Chase’s script is abysmal in the area of gender. Women simply appear in the film; they have no character or depth. Molly Price plays Doug’s mother as if she’s a mash of every imaginable stereotype of dowdy Italian mothers. Dominique McElligott appears as Grace’s trippy older sister, but we have no idea of why she, or Doug’s sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu) are in the movie in the first place.

And then there’s the contrived stuff that’s as cheap as a Silvertone guitar. A corny prelude of a Paul McCartney stand-in meeting a John Lennon stand-in is supposed to prefigure the rivalry between Doug and Eugene. I think we’re supposed to see Grace as a Yoko substitute, but that’s one of many threads that flap untied in the breeze. We also get gratuitous “sightings” of rock gods, clich├ęd scenes such as Doug’s vocal debut (A Star is Born), and set-ups that Western Union couldn’t have telegraphed better.  Later the film drifts to Los Angeles, though why an aspirant musician who lives a short train ride from Grand Central would go to LA isn’t very clear. (Film school? Desire to be Jim Morrison? Access to orange groves?) And if you think that’s unclear, explain to me (if you can) what happens to Grace the first night she’s in LA.

When Not Fade Away is at its best, it’s reminiscent of Diner meets The Commitments. When it’s bad–which is frequently–it reminds you of how superior those films are to this one. Should you see it? Sure. But go to dance, not immerse yourself in transcendent filmmaking. --Rob Weir

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