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Does David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” Rock?

October 7, 2012

Let’s face it: Moviegoing is all about expectations. As much as professional critics try to pretend like they approach each film like a blank slate, previous cinematic experiences with the stars, writers and directors inevitably factor in. So how could Not Fade Away—the belated directorial debut of David Chase, the 67-year-old creator of The Sopranos—not come with sky-high expectations? After all, even Richard Peña, the outgoing director of the Film Society of Lincoln Center, admitted that The Sopranos was the new millennium’s best screen work when he was introducing Not Fade Away as the centerpiece of the 50th Annual New York Film Festival last night.

With such a weight on its skinny Jersey-boy shoulders, how could Not Fade Away do anything but disappoint? Which is what it does—initially. The tale of a scrappy Garden State garage band feels all-too-familiar at first, as it hits all the predictable ’60s period-piece notes: the JFK assassination, the British Invasion, Vietnam, LBJ, MLK, RFK and on and on. You may ask yourself, “What sets this apart from That Thing You Do!?” another mediocre directorial debut by a Baby Boomer.

But unlike Tom Hanks’ wispy pop-music fable, Not Fade Away starts to get under your skin. Like a great rock song, it bypasses your rational mind and connects with you on a visceral level. And you find yourself caring deeply about an unnamed band (though they may in fact be named the Twylight Zones, the film’s original title, based on the Rod Serling references throughout) and especially its shaggy-haired underdog drummer-turned-singer, Doug, played by an appealing unknown named John Magaro.

Not Fade Away overflows with evocative performances from James Gandolfini as Doug’s judgmental dad; Third Watch‘s Molly Price as his drama-queen mom; Dark Shadows‘ Bella Heathcote—a dead ringer for a young Emily Deschanel—as his impossibly beautiful girlfriend and Boardwalk Empire‘s Jack Huston as his jealous bandmate. In smaller roles, standups Brad Garrett and Lisa Lampinelli impress, and Christopher McDonald (clearly, Chase has been watching protege Terence Winter’s Boardwalk Empire) and The Wire‘s Isiah Whitlock Jr. do their usual stellar work.

And then there’s the ending. I was one of the few defenders of The Sopranos‘ controversial abrupt signoff. But after seeing how Chase botches the final scenes of Not Fade Away, I may need to revise my opinion. He seems afraid to bring this movie to a close; several scenes that would serve as perfectly good endings are allowed to drag on. Without spoiling anything that isn’t already rotten, suffice it to say the film’s needless narrator suddenly appears on the screen and starts talking directly into the camera. Dude, that dramatic device almost never works, and this is no exception. It doesn’t ruin the movie, but it’s a shame that a film that’s worked so hard to win you over ends in such an off-key manner. Guess it’s like the man said: It’s better to burn out than to fade away.

Will you be lining up to see Not Fade Away when it opens Dec. 21? Post a comment!

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