Hollywood’s a rough town. One minute you’re the toast of it. The next, even your agent is keeping his distance. The wizard behind Hollywood’s Oz? A spastic teenage kid called The Weekend Box-Office. Every Friday, the studios haul their latest wares to the multiplex hoping to impress. And every Monday, like the roll of a dice (or a Roman emperor’s thumb), the Wizard responds. It’s like an election. You either pop open some Brut or go straight to jail. Without passing go.
The most recent bout of box-office jinx befell acclaimed TV writer David Chase, when his much anticipated debut film Not Fade Away (his first project after the mythical Sopranos) failed to make even a dent with moviegoers. After expanding to wide release this past weekend, the film took in only $400k—the price of a shitty studio apartment in Queens. In Hollywood, that kind of money won’t buy you a refill on your Diet Coke.
It would be one thing if such abject commercial failure were to attend the crazy experiment of a film-school upstart. But Chase is anything but a rookie. After seven seasons of The Sopranos, and now in his sixties, the depressive Italian-American writer has become a legend of the land: the land of TV and the people who watch it. Thanks to The Sopranos, intimate, patient, and extremely provocative (not to mention addictive) storytelling has become de rigueur for premium and cable channels. Every high-minded series—from Six Feet Under to Breaking Bad—bears a debt to Chase. He is the man who turned television into a serious art form. And yet, as this past weekend has proven, even that distinction won’t buy you any credits at the box-office.
Not Fade Away, which follows a garage band through a 1960s, the-times-are-a-changin’ suburban New Jersey, had, on the surface, all the ingredients of a crowd-pleaser. There was the sing-a-long soundtrack (curated by Steve Van Zandt), the Wonder Years nostalgia, James Gandolfini as the lovable but disgruntled patriarch, and an ensemble cast of Hollywood hipsters. And yet, somehow, Not Fade Away has done just that; it has faded almost instantly into the box-office dustbin. How did this happen?
If only there was a pilot’s black-box. Instead, we’ll have to pick from among the pet-theories floating (oh-so-apocryphally) around Hollywood’s backend chatrooms. Here’s a list. You be the judge.
1) It would have worked better as a series. Something about the do-nothing boredom of the Suburbs lends itself to sitcoms—the world where things happen but nothing changes. Like a series, Not Fade Away definitely doesn’t know when (or how) to end. It has about three denouements in a row, and then adds on a wacky epilogue by a minor character. But hidden within this theory is the prejudice that Chase’s genius—and his credentials—are unique to television. When Michael Jordan switched to baseball he was only an average player. This leads us to theory number two.
2) Chase already had his One Big Idea. You can’t really call it a one-hit wonder since it lasted for seven seasons, but still, The Sopranos seems to have been Chase’s creative soulmate. His match made in heaven. An alignment of the stars not to be repeated again. (Note: I find this theory attractive but fatalistic; pace F Scott Fitzgerald, American lives can have second acts.)
3) Cameron Crowe already made this movie. As did Tom Hanks, by the way. A retro boy-band, drummer-singer rivalry, a modish maiden in bangs… Sound familiar? The idea behind this theory is that Not Fade Away couldn’t help but come off as a composite of a string of films. It was a Johnny-come-lately to a formula Almost Famous crystallized and the Hard Rock Cafe inaugurated: turn a once-rebellious movement into a sterile family dining experience
4) Rock n’ Roll really is dead. This is a variation on theory #3, but slightly more expansive. The bandmates in Not Fade Away look and dress like The Strokes. But the mania around vintage lo-fi peaked ten years ago. To a generation weaned on Skrillex and Beats-by-Dre, The Rolling Stones can (sadly) seem as antiquated as Beethoven.
5) Everyone is riding for a fall. Or, as the French say, Il Faut Payer. One day everyone must pay. This is a truism Tony Soprano would understand. And so too, perhaps, his creator. It’s true in Jersey and it’s true in Hollywood. You can’t have the ups without the downs.
6) The film is about failure. This is the theory I like best. The tragic flaw of Chase’s protagonists is that they expect to be famous. They got in on the act for fun and for the poonang (as one character puts it). But soon they get greedy. Greed may be good on Wall Street but in art it rarely pays. My guess is the film will have a long-afterlife as a cult-favorite amongst retro heads and suburban dreamers. But for now, the film’s commercial failure feels, strangely, right. It’s in line with its message—one worth living by. Expect nothing and you’ll always be pleasantly surprised.