For years, I have been lecturing all who will listen to my theory that the greatest achievements in Western long-form narrative post-2000 were on television and not in print. As far as the highlights of that televised revolution go, my brain would choose The Wire, but my heart remains with The Sopranos, David Chase’s perversely cynical last word on the American Dream. Despite the success of his magnum opus, however, he has long insisted that television was the stepping stone to his real goal; to make movies. Better late than never – Not Fade Away, the 67 year old Chase’s directorial debut, released last year to critical praise but barely a ripple in the cultural conversation. An unfortunate development, given that the film is a gem; a thoroughly lived-in bit of storytelling that tackles that old chestnut of being young at the dawn of the counterculture with genuine feeling and honesty.
An enthusiastic gaggle of relatively unknown young actors play a group of friends growing up in 1960s New Jersey, with the story tracking their personal ups and downs from teens to early 20s. The focus is on second-generation Italian-American Douglas (John Magaro) who temporarily replaces a high school rock band’s conventionally rakish vocalist Eugene (Jack Huston) after the latter accidentally swallows a lit joint. Following his first performance – an initially shaky but eventually magnetic cover of The Rolling Stones’ version of Time Is On My Side – the band realizes that Douglas is far better for the band than Eugene and they embark on a semi-pro stint as The Twylight Zones. The band’s arc is just the framework on which the narrative is hung. There is a swirl of subplots fleshing out the picture; the conflict between Douglas and his father Pat (James Gandolfini), Douglas’ love for beautiful classmate Grace (Bella Heathcote) and the complicated relationship between the bandmates.
Chase’s film is about reality as much as the moon-age daydreams, laying down the uncomfortable truths that so many directors dealing with the 60s tend to avoid.
Departing from the tradition of many baby boomer epics, the 1960s are not whitewashed here as some bygone era of enlightenment; an astute observer like Chase wouldn’t (and doesn’t) fail to touch on the racism, homophobia and cultural schizophrenia rampant at the time. The movie functions almost like a mini-cultural history of the decade in America as told by its music, opening with the airy tones of The Starliters’ Peppermint Twist and concluding with the dark growls of The Sex Pistols. Chase – a veritable encyclopaedia of rock – lays out a loving yet loaded account of its role in American culture, right down to barbed references to its roots in African-American music and ironic asides about trans-Atlantic influences. “How can the English know all about the blues, and we didn’t, yet it’s been right here under our noses the whole time,” asks an incredulous Douglas. At one point, he experiences further consternation when a black groundskeeper with whom he frequently converses about music (with more than a smidgen of condescension), expresses preference for white Italian crooner Tony Bennett over blues stalwarts like Robert Johnson. The killer soundtrack, curated by Chase and music supervisor Stevie Van Zandt (Bruce Springsteen’s guitarist and Sopranos regular), is a subtext unto itself.
Chase distils the decade’s social spasms and generational gap into an emotionally exhausting depiction of Douglas’ tumultuous relationship with his father. Gandolfini is incredible, playing Pat like a working class, law-abiding Tony Soprano, even re-appropriating iconic Soprano behaviour like decompressing in front of the TV with a bowl of ice cream. Pat is a product of his time; hardworking, casually bigoted, tossing around racial epithets, equating his son’s long hair and Cuban-style boots with homosexuality and high heels. Yet, he is an essentially decent man, one trapped in the life he felt he should have, seeing in his son’s idealism and restless ambition the life he actually wanted for himself. These scenes between Gandolfini and Magaro are the movie’s highlights, beautifully written and acted, taking on additional pathos with a third-act reveal that Pat has cancer.
Chase’s primary preoccupations here are the universal experiences of young adulthood, examined through a semi-autobiographical lens (he grew up in the 60s and drummed in a band that almost made it). The historical context accentuates some of these experiences; Douglas and Grace’s relationship, for example, is complicated by the fast-changing sexual mores of the time. But, generally speaking, this is a pretty timeless portrait of middle class youth – equal parts optimism and disillusionment, stupidity and ambition, misguided sex and all-encompassing love. The key factor here is the shying away from larger-than-life mythicising of an already heavily dissected historical period. This is not Oliver Stone paying tribute to his hard-partying days with The Doors. Chase chooses to stick with the everyman; to the musicians who are talented but not quite good or persistent enough to go global, the love affairs that are intense but end up confronted by the hard realities of the world beyond. Everything ends, the 60s included. The film ends on a dark surreal note, with Douglas wandering the suddenly threatening streets of LA, both his girlfriend and his confidence as a budding rock star lost to their ever-so-slight proximity to the big time as Sid Vicious snarls maliciously over the soundtrack. Chase’s film is about reality as much as the moon-age daydreams, laying down the uncomfortable truths that so many directors dealing with the 60s tend to avoid. That, yes, the Rolling Stones really are better than the Beatles.