According to the “Not Fade Away” press release, the title was cited as one of the top 10 films of the year by the Associated Press, New York Times and more. I suppose, from a filmmaking or artistic perspective, I can see that. But I can’t see it from a quality perspective, or from a perspective that values a storyline grounded in historical context as it tells a story about, according to the press release, “friends, family and the power of rock-and-roll.”
Speaking of perspective, I probably lack the right one for “Not Fade Away.” After all, it takes place during an era I’ve only heard about from elders and studied in history books. The so-called ‘counter culture’ strikes me as a time that probably could use even more factual analysis, given that so many people who were around during that time seem to have their own unique take on what actually happened that someone out there should probably write about, well, what actually happened. This said, I’d wager that those who share personal experiences from this time period are likely to better connect to “Not Fade Away,” despite the fact that the film works really hard to communicate that the music should be what transcends all.
You’ll be interested to hear that David Chase, from “The Sopranos” fame, is behind “Not Fade Away.” James Gandolfini has a supporting role in the film, too, but lacks the real dynamic presence we’ve become accustomed to. It’s a story that sounds all too familiar and overdone, as youth try to pursue their own uniquely chiseled version of what it means to be successful. In the end, “Not Fade Away” feels empty because its leads are hollow, its execution too textbook and its perspective on a generation too narrow.
The setting is the New Jersey suburbs during the turbulent 1960s. Douglas (John Magaro) wants to make a name for himself as a musician, and realizes that he needs a few other hands on board if he is to start a band and get to the big time. He gets some friends together, including Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill), in an effort to do something they all love (play music) and achieve the glory they all seek. Of course, we know little about what, if any, training these young men have, just like we’re made to know little about what, if any, training the groups they’re trying to emulate (The Rolling Stones, The Beatles) have. More on that momentarily.
So, the stage is set, both literally and figuratively. Douglas has to battle his father, Pat (Gandolfini), for acceptance as he heads off to college but indulges in his musical vices over his education. He also fights for attention from Grace (Bella Heathcote, who bears a resemblance to Heather Graham), the pretty girl he’s had his eyes on for many years, but always from a distance. As his identity formation takes center stage, we see the world around him change and provide its influence. His friends turn out to have less than ethical perspectives on lives, everyone smokes and drinks, and the greed surrounding a super competitive industry overcomes everyone, including Douglas himself, at one point or another.
The band plays house parties to little avail, takes the occasionally unwanted gig as a way to at least get some exposure and tries to hold itself together despite everyone wanting to do their own thing at some point. They meet girls, use drugs, listen to the radio, develop identities in defiance of authority, react to political and social injustice, hate the challenges they’re facing and, at the end of the day, develop some unique sounds of their own that can be competitive. But as Douglas and his friends quickly realize, spending time wanting to be someone else means that you’re spending time not being who you are, and that lacking individualism has an adverse impact on his group’s ability to thrive.
I suppose in some ways “Not Fade Away” is meant to be a coming-of-age story where we witness one young man’s journey into adulthood through the rock-and-roll era, but I found it to be lacking because most of the actors can’t hold their own for a single scene, let alone an entire film’s run time. Chase’s script is extremely subpar, perhaps with the hope that the music will be what folks take away more so than anything else, and this perspective would work if “Not Fade Away” were a musical (it’s not). Additionally, things become far less about the music mighty fast, giving us a backdrop that leans on rather weak human drama to support itself. Is “Not Fade Away” about rock-and-roll? A young person’s upbringing against the backdrop of rock-and-roll? Is it about brotherhood/friendship above all else? These are questions I tried to answer as the film ran its 112 minutes through my Blu-ray player, but at the end of the day, I was left with few answers. I did, however, relearn a lot about how prevalent sleeping around randomly, drinking and smoking were during the 1960s.
If you were to track the success rate behind young people who tried to form bands and make it to the next level, you’d be depressed. And from my perspective, “Not Fade Away” seems to suggest that it’s okay if some try and don’t succeed, more or less because they can learn a thing or two in the process. That’s true if, and only if, they are interested in learning. I didn’t once get the vibe that Douglas, his fellow musicians or those he was competing with for fame and fortune really sought anything else from the “Not Fade Away” experience. And, if we were to follow Douglas and his entourage past the film’s conclusion, I’d wager we wouldn’t see much return on the investment they’d chosen at the film’s beginning.
If there is a bright spot, it’s the music from very well known groups that you’ll recognize. Heck, it had to have its role in the film, right? Kudos to Music Supervisor Steven Van Zandt for doing a mighty fine job working in the sounds of the era in a way that sets the more or less fictitious events on-screen up next to some real stuff that did indeed make an impact and change the world. I might come off as harsher than necessary on Douglas and those around him, but at the end of the day, the music business, as it is referred to by Brad Garrett in a very brief cameo, isn’t an easy one. And success by some, in many cases, probably means failure by others.
If you’re looking for the music from an era where the musicians actually wrote their own stuff and played their own instruments, you can probably find it on YouTube or Pandora. Don’t bother with “Not Fade Away.” There isn’t enough here to address the hunger for the sounds that changed an era and furthered a revolution.
“Not Fade Away” is shot surprisingly well, to the point where it’s nice looking enough to lend authenticity I didn’t really see coming. The film is presented in a 1080p High Definition 1.85:1 video transfer that has occasional grain and struggles to vividly demonstrate any role held by bright colors, yet there is a certain grit here I appreciated as I watched these young people battle for their success with their instruments. There are varying camera angles, especially when the band is performing, that seem to hint at the nonlinear approach youth from this era chose to take as they grew up. Eigil Bryld worked on the film’s photography, and save for balance in coloration, the visuals work rather well.
As you might expect for a film about music, the sound ain’t half bad. “Not Fade Away” leans on a strong English 5.1 DTS-High Definition Master Audio soundtrack that prioritizes the music from this era and the young band’s attempts to replicate it above all else. Casual character dialogue isn’t exactly easy on the ears all the time, but the music is, as it should be, front and center. Natural background noise holds its own, especially during the party and performance scenes, where the tight sets probably took some creative audio work to completely capture things the film’s soundtrack. Additional audio tracks include French and Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digitals, while subtitles provided are English, French and Spanish.
Four featurettes are offered: “The Basement Tapes,” which includes “The Boys in the Band,” “Living in the Sixties” and “Hard Art,” as well as a separate offering titled “Building the Band.” A few deleted scenes are also presented. If you guessed a few times, you could probably identify the content behind the featurettes as well as where a few of the omitted moments might have come from.
A Final Word:
While “Not Fade Away” isn’t a period piece, it’s not a coming of age feature, either. Is it homage to a simpler time musically? A journey with troubled youth through their own personal turbulence and back? Or perhaps it’s a way to consider our own relationship with the sounds from our earlier days, and how our passion for them, exuded through listening for hours on end or starting a band, can change who we are. Whatever the primary motives here, they come up wanting, leaving the film standing off to the side as if it’s hoping to join the band following a tense audition. Lower expectations will breed higher enjoyment with this title.