As drummer in a forgotten New Jersey band in the 1960s, David Chase never got close - never even got close to close - to making it in music. Yet from a sound check of his rock-infused HBO series "The Sopranos," it's clear the music never faded away.
So what better way for the TV revolutionary to make his film directing debut than with a story that's all about the music? Chase's "Not Fade Away" - a somewhat autobiographical drama about a Jersey boy playing drums in a '60s band and dreaming of stardom - would be called a promising first feature from some unknown filmmaker doing the rounds at Sundance. Coming from a Hollywood heavyweight who's spent decades in the TV trenches, it's a hopeful sign, or maybe just wishful thinking, that more of the quality that has fled film for television might somehow be channeled back to the big-screen.
"Not Fade Away" is a sweet, sad, smart and satisfying piece of nostalgia. Yet it's more than just a little acid trip down memory lane. Chase writes intimately and authoritatively about a time and place and attitude he lived himself, and does it with such energy and affection that we wish we were back at the beginning ourselves, when rock 'n' roll grew up from mere pop music to an art and lifestyle all its own.
Like "The Sopranos," much of the drama arises out of generational conflict, in this case rebellious son Douglas (John Magaro) and his pragmatic, my-way-or-the-highway dad ("Sopranos" star James Gandolfini). As countless teens before and since, Douglas is infected by music - chiefly, the bluesy, rootsy rock of the early Rolling Stones - and joins a band with some New Jersey pals who are similarly caught up in the British invasion of the early and mid '60s.
From there we get not the overdone tale of a group on the rise and struggling with the pitfalls of fame and success. Instead, we get the genuine and more illuminating story of all those losers who didn't make it. Who maybe didn't put in the time, maybe didn't have the talent, maybe didn't pursue the dream with the single-minded fanaticism that it usually takes to rise to the top, or even to climb the first couple of rungs.
Writer-director Chase lets his story and characters evolve naturally with the music and the decade, Douglas and his band mates advancing from three-chord cover tunes to their own stab at a grand rock epic.
Along the way, they live the rock life even if they don't reap its rewards. Egos clash as the band decides Douglas has a better voice and is promoted to frontman over initial vocalist Eugene (Jack Huston). Tragedy strikes in a reckless accident involving guitarist Wells (Will Brill). The band gets a disheartening wake-up call about paying dues after an audition for celebrated producer and songwriter Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett). And Douglas satisfies what is arguably the main goal for any guy who joins a rock band - to attract women - as he wins over high school dream girl Grace (Bella Heathcote).
It's no surprise, considering the union of music and drama on "The Sopranos," that Chase assembles a killer soundtrack featuring the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks, Bo Diddley, Robert Johnson, Lead Belly, Elmore James and many others. He's aided by fellow Jersey guy and "Sopranos" co-star Steven Van Zandt, a member of Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band, who does double duty as both music supervisor and an executive producer on the film.
The period details lend great authenticity, from Douglas' gradually lengthening hair and the flower-child adornments characters don, to ghostly snippets of Rod Serling on "The Twilight Zone" and Dean Martin on "The Hollywood Palace," to emergency-broadcast system tests and duck-and-cover PSAs on dealing with a nuclear attack.
Gandolfini does a lovely variation on his Tony Soprano act of domineering dad, here playing a working-class drone who bellows job security to his son yet reveals touching respect and even wistful envy at the notion of chasing impossible dreams rather than playing it safe.
"Not Fade Away" is stronger for its talented cast of unknowns, their unfamiliarity lending an anonymous quality to this band's story that makes it universal. If you weren't in a failed band yourself, you know people who were, and Chase's story IS their story, if not in the particulars, then in the spirit and the passion. The music may fade, but what's behind it never does.
"Not Fade Away," a Paramount Vantage release, is rated R for pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content. Running time: 112 minutes. Three stars out of four.