N.J. teens and the power of their music
Cigarettes and penny loafers, long hair and skinny jeans, pea coats and pot. And the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan.
No, it's not your hipster teen's Tumblr blog. It's the 1960s in suburban New Jersey, a time and place - and state of mind - diligently re-created by David Chase in his nostalgic but emotionally true coming-of-age tale, Not Fade Away.
Chase, creator of The Sopranos - the family saga whose patriarch, Tony Soprano, becomes the grumpy blue-collar dad here - mines his personal experiences and his love of early rock and roll to winning effect. The filmmaker builds his tale around Douglas (a very good John Magaro), a gawky high schooler who gains confidence and the approving gaze of the girls when he steps behind his drum kit and starts thrashing out crisp, cool beats.
He and his pals (Jack Huston, Will Brill), inspired by the likes of Messrs. Lennon and McCartney, Jagger and Richards, have formed a band, the Twylight Zones, that plays in basements and backyards, at church dances and hippie soirees. Once Douglas asserts himself, leaving the drums to sing lead, the group actually starts to be good. This could be a career.
And this could be the straw that breaks the camel's back between Douglas and his father (James Gandolfini), who won't tolerate the antiwar dinner-table talk, or the way his son has been dressing.
"If you want to wear Cuban heels," he snaps, "go live in Cuba."
Of course, there's a girl: Grace Deitz (Bella Heathcote, last seen in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows), is the impossibly beautiful, sophisticated classmate who actually tells Douglas she likes his voice. It's the beginning of a heady relationship that starts in Garden State driveways, winds its way to grungy East Village walk-ups, and reaches a moody, messy climax in a surfside house in L.A.
So, yes, Chase covers lots of ground - geographically, chronologically, musically. With astute assistance from Steve Van Zandt (The Sopranos cast member and Springsteen cohort), who supervised the soundtrack and composed one catchy gem of a would-be pop hit, "St. Valentine's Day," Chase pays homage to old American bluesmen, R&B greats, and the British Invaders who recognized their genius.
"I don't get it," the teenage bandmates muse, getting stoned and listening to the Rolling Stones. "How come the English knew all about the blues, but it's been under our nose the whole time?"
Now and then, Not Fade Away falls back, perhaps inevitably, on certain narrative conventions and cliches. The vintage cars and clothes may be too perfect, the breakup scenes too big, the kitchen-table admonishments too rote. And Chase bookends his movie with voice-overs from an interested bystander, Douglas' younger sister, Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu). The last shot, though lovely in its So-Cal surrealness, seems off-point and anachronistic, if you take the song selection - the Sex Pistols' version of "Roadrunner" - literally.
But that's nit-picking. Mostly, Not Fade Away is a hit.