Can a movie be intimate and rock-and-roll at the same time? That's what Sopranos creator David Chase seems to be going for with his 1960s-set memoir Not Fade Away, which follows Douglas (John Magaro) and his crew of friends in their hopeless attempts to strike it big as a rock band. Groups like the Rolling Stones have made it possible for skinny white people to be "cool," and Doug — pining for a way to impress classmate Grace (the luminous Bella Heathcote) — sees in them his opportunity for fame. But this isn't a biopic; his skills aren't up to those of Mick and Keith.
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And so years pass, marked not by title cards but by historical events — the Beatles and Stones on TV, the sexual revolution, the Vietnam War, taking a date to see Blow-Up at the local theater. As the crew members grow older, their hopes for fame grow slighter, and Fade becomes less about the music than about the people playing it.
Chase's directing (as anyone who's watched The Sopranos knows) apes Scorsese shamelessly: he employs jukebox-style soundtrack cuts and kinetic camerawork that glides along to them emphatically. But in spite of the rockin' needle drops, his main interest is in quietly criticizing his characters' brutish self-interest, looking at the way their focus lies more on the press conferences they'll hold after they're famous than on the music they're playing to get there. He locates the soul of the picture in James Gandolfini as Douglas's father, Pat, who mourns the loss of the greatest generation and constantly chides his son for his proto-hippie fashions.
Selfishness drives all, every relationship is corrupted, and it all builds to a devastating climax. But unfortunately, the complaints that accompanied TheSopranos' mysterious finale seem to have had an effect on Chase: Fade closes with a borderline-insulting denouement, skewing closer to a thesis statement than a conclusion. After watching two hours of effectively ambiguous filmmaking, it's deflating to be told — by one of the characters, no less — how to think about Chase's themes. Though no doubt meant as an audacious metatextual flourish, it comes off more glib than profound.
But even if he doesn't stick the landing, the picture captures our country with daring honesty. Our inability to communicate across generational lines, our self-righteous approach to art, our knee-jerk reactions to political hot-buttons, our obsession with celebrity — Chase's critical eye spares no one. This is his attempt to make the "Great American Film About Music." He almost succeeds.