Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Fading Fast: David Chase’s Not Fade Away

With The Sopranos, David Chase achieved an elusive feat: creating a television series that was not only a gripping new installment in American film’s much beloved gangster genre, but expanded on its conventions to reflect deep currents of the cultural mainstream. He tries to replicate this maneuver in Not Fade Away, using rock music as a lens to get at the social upheaval of the 60s, but to no avail. The movie is his first piece of work as a writer and director since his HBO mob hit, and it suffers most of all from a lack of what lay at the heart of The Sopranos: fascinatingly layered characters. It doesn’t help that the movie is overly self-conscious and convinced of its notion that rock n’ roll was America’s greatest achievement, as if just stating this thesis makes for an important film.

Not Fade Away opens with a brief black and white scene of a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meeting on a train before cutting, now in color, to its story of a group of high school guys in the New Jersey suburbs who form a band of their own at the same time. Doug, played by John Magaro, awakens to the power of rock when he hears The Beatles' first hit on the radio and yearns to join a band he sees at his high school because of the popularity (and girls) that come with performing. We’re told by a voice over narrator – his younger sister – from the get go that this is a story about the band, but the narrative doesn’t bear this out. It keeps dropping the band’s fate to follow Doug as he moves through and comes of age in the turbulent decade. It’s a relief that Chase drops the voice over for most of the movie – simply asserting, with old TV footage of The Rolling Stones, that rock music’s trajectory ran parallel to that of Doug’s band is didactic and unsubstantiated if you don’t actually show it. And the sister barely functions as a character in the story. Why is she the one guiding us through it? But when he brings it back at the end, it moves from annoying to simultaneously grating and silly.

But the story of Doug and company proves little more engaging when Chase gets down to showing it. At no point are we made to understand who Doug is and why we should care about him. Along with Eugene and Wells, his bandmates, he never moves beyond a teenage self-absorption and immaturity that quickly grow tiresome. Far from quotidian, the trials and tribulations of these kids are vain and boring – Not Fade Away wants to romanticize them, but if that’s what the 60s offered then I fail to grasp what the fuss is about. The film also tries to set up a conflict between Doug and his father, Pat, (James Gandolfini), a blue-collar Italian-American angered at his son’s embrace of long hair and anti-war attitudes.Yet this material is spotty and melodramatic – it doesn’t follow up on the consequences of this dispute, just as Magaro, who reads every line like a whiny stoner, fails to convince you that Doug’s stances run anything beyond skin deep. Moreover, it’s inconsistent: for most of the picture Doug’s dad practically disowns him, but Pat turns teary-eyed later when his son moves to California. Chase hints that this transformation is the result of Pat’s getting cancer, yet he doesn’t dramatize this shift enough to make it believable or compelling.

James Gandolfini & John Magaro
Part of the problem is that Not Fade Away can’t figure out what it wants to be. It sets itself up as a music movie that charts the brief rise and fall of a 60s rock band (something Tom Hanks did effectively and entertainingly with That Thing You Do!). But here the band barely congeals and gets off the ground before disintegrating into petty squabbles over who will be lead singer. At other points it seems to aspire to comment on the intergenerational and even racial conflict that the decade wrought. But we’ve seen this story countless times before, and because Chase doesn’t ground these events in characters who come across as really living through them, they’re clichéd. They read like the Greatest Hits of the 60s, with the same old tropes trotted out. Finally, the film attempts to tell a love story about Doug and his girlfriend, Grace – who takes interest after hearing him sing a cover with the band of “Time is On My Side” while they’re home from college on Christmas break (“Time is on your side,” she tells him, in a moment cued for import that ends up meaning little). The picture works best when, as here, depicting the (few) scenes of the band actually performing. We get to feel, with the characters, the effect music can work between people, instead of just being told about it. But it never presents Grace as more than a pretty face and her relationship with Doug becomes baffling: they break up after he screams at her after learning about sexual relationships she had before dating him, only to get back together (inexplicably) after her parents have her older sister, Joy, committed to a psych ward for, apparently, being a hippie (this moment feels especially heavy-handed). Why would this catastrophe drive Grace back into his arms, especially when she has moved on to another guy?

Chase keeps picking up and dropping these narrative threads so that nothing adds up in the end. Meanwhile, the characters and actors playing them also don’t hold much interest. Dominque McElligott tries to make Joy a fascinating flower child, and she might have succeeded if Chase presented her as anything more than a stereotype. Jack Huston (grandson of the great John Huston) is the prissy Eugene, and goes over the top in his big scene with Magaro. Brad Garrett, from Everybody Loves Raymond, is effective in a bit part as a music business executive who tells the band what we’ve known all along: that they’re not going far with the attitude they’ve got. Gandolfini is not given much to work with, but he does have one scene with Magaro that draws you in – when Pat confesses to Doug at a restaurant that he’s contemplated leaving his wife for another woman. The writing is not particularly revealing, but as Gandolfini plays it, we begin to sense something like depth. You can’t say that about much else in the movie.

– Nick Coccoma is a Master of Divinity candidate at the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry. He holds an M.A. in philosophy from Boston College, and a B.A. in theatre from the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA. A native of Cooperstown, NY, he also taught religion at the Nativity Preparatory School, a tuition-free, Jesuit middle school serving boys from low-income families in Boston.

No comments:

Post a Comment