It was my fault, really it was. I expected The Sopranos. It’s really a pretty stupid thing to expect that a film about teenage Jerseyites trying to put a rock band together in the 60s could in any way be like The Sopranos just because David Chase is at the helm of it. Yet expect I did, and needless to say, I was disappointed.
But let’s get one thing straight: I did not dislike Not Fade Away because it wasn’t The Sopranos. I disliked it because it wasn’t itself. Which is to say, it hardly could have seemed like it’s own film, having resembled pretty much every film in its generic vicinity. It’s a bit of The Commitments, but nowhere near as good, a bit of Almost Famous, even a bit of That Thing You Do, but nowhere near as crappy. It’s the mean, the average of all “let’s start a band/let’s come of age” films, set in the Rolling Stone-era ’60s and making the obligatory gestures to JFK and The Beatles and the birth of Greenwich Village as we know it.
One can understand Chase’s motive only too easily. What films about the 60s try to do is convey that the music was new–not only was new but felt new–and that to hear the music was to understand that it heralded the beginning of a new era. However well a film gets this point across, it’s a point that’s mostly lost on a generation that tends to get discouraged rather than excited about the thriving artistic culture of the past, and for whom a reminder of how great our parents’ era was can only be depressing. Fair enough: Chase’s film will probably play to an older audience, and they will probably find aspects of hidden meaning in it that the rest of us will only be able to read as overt nostalgia. Yes, people still listen to the music of 1962-1968, they still listen to Bob Dylan and the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but for some easily discernable reason, only when they’re in high school.
But as I said before, I was destined to be unfair from the start. I expected something if not exactly The Sopranos, very closely approaching its insight, wit, intelligence, and beauty. But that would require its length. Not Fade Away‘s flaws may have more to do with the fact that it is a feature-length film rather than a series, and therefore must condense all its intellectual aims into a two hour span rather than spreading them out over the course of days, weeks, months, in a series format. The Sopranos could never have worked as a film, in part because it came out of one (or three: the Godfather series) and built its premise on the idea that those films, even in saying all they could, could hardly tell the whole story of a subculture. When Not Fade Away does revert to Sopranos territory, during scenes depicting the main character’s home life, it is at its best and its worst. The best is in James Gandolfini‘s performance, which is a beautiful, isolated portrait of regret, and perhaps the one true-ringing note of the film. The worst consists of everything else: the mother perpetually (and unrealistically) in her nightgown and curlers, perpetually threatening suicide; the father accusing his son of looking like he ‘just got off the boat’ at Ellis Island. These scenes are like a parody of Sopranos’ flashback scenes, and the character of the mother an rehashed, unbelievable caricature of the large-looming Livia. The rest of the characters, being too young to assert specific personalities, are but sketches, and this somehow works, with most of the actors putting out solid work. John Magaro and Will Brill are believable as bandmates and rivals; Dominique McElliogott is brilliant as an aspiring bohemian verging on mental collapse; Jack Huston is beautiful, though somehow less sexual than with half a face. Go figure.
Now that his desire to make a feature film is appeased at last, I can only hope that David Chase returns to form: the televised, serialized form in which he works best. If not, my hope for his next film is that it takes place in the present day, where Chase is grounded and the setting in which his strength and artistic sensibility, though perhaps not his heart, lies.
The 50th Annual New York Film Festival runs from September 28th to October 14th at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.