Writer-director David Chase, best known for The Sopranos, has made a feature film about a rock band’s struggles to make it big in the 1960s, but Chase’s real concern is the ‘60s themselves, not the band. He is interested in the culture’s journey, how people began the decade and how they ended up. And the point he wants to make is best conveyed in two wordless scenes, one near the beginning and one near the finish, and both involving James Gandolfini watching television.
If you’re familiar with similar scenes in The Sopranos, you know that no one watches TV quite like Gandolfini, whose face barely moves a muscle, and yet his thoughts are clear to all. In the first scene, he is husband and father watching the Rolling Stones singing Time Is on My Side (it sure was) on a variety show, and you know he’s marveling that anyone could take these skinny degenerates seriously.
He is sure in his judgments, and he has a black and white TV set.
Some five or six years later, he is by himself watching the Bali Hai number in the movie South Pacific. The world is in color now, and so he has a color set. And though his face is deadpan, his eyes suggest a longing for what the song promises. No longer sure he knows everything, he is thinking that maybe life isn’t all about wearing blinders and working hard, that maybe people are entitled to something splendid, and the convention he has lived by is a trap. A quiet revolution has taken place in his mind, and this revolution is, in short, the 1960s.
Not Fade Away is a movie by a filmmaker who treasures his memories, cares about social history and relishes getting it right. The early 1960s may seem quaint from a distance, but through Chase’s eyes, we can recognize the insolence of the early Stones and the sexual current in early rock ’n’ roll. He persuades the audience to feel what it must have been like when this stuff was new. This is no small accomplishment, making something fresh of something dated.
As Douglas, a teenager who joins a band and blossoms as a result, John Magaro becomes a prototype of the young person of that era, condescending to his parents, proclaiming himself an artist and talking to adults like they’re all idiots — though many of them are; that’s the difficulty. It was a time of the generation gap, when the kids were insufferable and the parents didn’t have a clue about anything. At one point, a girl asks her mother if she can switch from pads to tampons, and the mother explodes, “Try convincing your future husband it was just tampons!”
Of course, it’s not just a generic 1960s that Chase is offering, but the specific 60s that he experienced as an Italian-American in New Jersey, which was a little more vocal than an Anglo-Saxon household.
He gets the big things right and the little things, too: At one point, Douglas is dipping a piece of ham or baloney into a mayonnaise jar, while his mother makes antipasto — a slice of life, not just lunch meat.
A lot finds its way in here: Sexual mores in transition, as expressed through Douglas’ relationship with his girlfriend (Bella Heathcote). The changing sound and atmosphere surrounding rock ’n’ roll. Vintage musical numbers. The transformation brought about by the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper album. The drug casualties. How families often hurt more than they helped. And the golden allure of California.
Chase doesn’t know how to end the movie — he didn’t know how to end The Sopranos, either, come to think of it — but at least he doesn’t impose an ending that distorts the characters. He just ends it.
The movie is going along nicely, and after 112 minutes (with about a five-minute warning), he pulls the plug.
So there’s none of the joy of a great finish, but there is a lot to admire throughout, especially Gandolfini as the dad, a poignant figure for whom the Sixties finally came, but about a quarter century too late.