IN HIS DEBUT as film writer/director, The Sopranos creator David Chase proves he still excels at loving portraits of old-school dads and their shitheadish sons, even if he hasn't quite mastered the art of writing for film. Compelling, touching, and brilliant at points, as a whole, Not Fade Away feels like an un-lubed HBO pilot roughly jammed into a movie slot. Still, it'd make a great show, and I guess we shouldn't be surprised that the guy who once gave us a cut to black as Tony Soprano walked through a diner in slow motion can't write endings.
Using the birth of rock 'n' roll as a backdrop, Not Fade Away is essentially The Wonder Years with less narration and if Kevin Arnold had been in a band. John Magaro plays the lead, Douglas Italian-namioli (sorry, I didn't write it down), with a nice mix of every-dude innocence and the know-it-all shittiness of youth (you'll hate him, but also recognize yourself). We follow him as he goes from high school loser (never made it with a lady...) to the singer of a local band just popular enough for him to nail his crush, Grace (Bella Heathcote, who I think I'm in love with, with her slightly parted saltwater taffy lips and blue eyes the size of tennis balls. Too... much... pretty...).
In Chase's hands, this '60s period piece—which easily could have been a tedious exercise in boomers bragging for the umpteenth fucking time about how awesome it was when they stopped Vietnam—actually comes off innocent and sort of lovely. Chase cares less about Sorkin-like editorializing and more about regular guys trying to get laid and fathers and sons too stubborn to connect (with James Gandolfini playing the father). And watching a four-piece come together just so on garage-rock standards actually makes me feel a magic about music that I thought Glee/American Idol/Rock of Ages had long ago killed. It's nice not to feel like a cynical alien when handsome people start singing for a change.
I want to recommend plucky Not Fade Away as the sugar-rock antidote to the bloated Oscar pandering of Les Misérables, but it just can't quite hit its stride, and goes off on dead-end tangents about adultery and mental illness that might work in a TV show but not in a movie, where you can't as easily jump from theme to theme. And it's sort of a downer that they tell us in the first five minutes that Doug's band never made it, considering the vicarious thrill of his music career is half of what's propelling the narrative. Not Fade Away manages to be both incredibly touching but ultimately unsatisfying, sort of how I imagine I'd be if Bella Heathcote and I ever went on a date.