A lot of excitement surrounded the announcement of the first feature film from The Sopranos creator David Chase, but Not Fade Away turns out not to be worth much fuss. It’s a bland coming-of-age drama set in New Jersey in the 1960s, inspired by some of Chase’s own youthful experiences. You can tell that Chase has a personal investment in the story of a suburban garage band with big dreams (but little follow-through), but his movie is filled with overly familiar ’60s signifiers and narrative dead ends. The core theme is an intriguing one: We think of the ’60s as this period of tremendous cultural upheaval, when everyone was engaged in an important political or social or artistic movement, but the truth is that most people stood on the sidelines. Only a very small number of people got to be The Beatles or The Rolling Stones or the Grateful Dead; most just admired them from afar.
That’s the case for teenage dreamer Douglas (John Magaro), who wants to emulate his rock 'n’ roll heroes by starting a band. He teams up with a couple of friends to put together a group that achieves some mild regional success, but over the course of several years (during which the band members graduate from and/or drop out of high school and college), the group never achieves more than vague promises of future record deals. Telling a story about the people that history passes by could be a novel approach to the standard period piece, but Chase doesn’t stray too far from ’60s clichés, including the reactionary father (James Gandolfini) who doesn’t approve of Douglas’ shaggy hair and effeminate clothes; the emotional cost of too much free love; and the dangerous allure of easily obtained narcotics.
Along the way, subplots about Douglas’ family members and friends peter out without resolution, and the characters are thinly conceived and portrayed (Magaro and female lead Bella Heathcote, who plays Douglas’ girlfriend, are equally colorless). In the movie’s last 15 minutes or so, Chase takes a baffling narrative left turn that leads to an inscrutable ending, summing up the era in a way that might have sounded profound on paper, but like the rest of the movie, just comes off as a jumbled mess.