(David Chase, 2012)
On the surface, Not Fade Away might seem like quite a safe, even banal little coming of age drama set in the era-defining tumult of the US in the late 1960s. But that would be to underestimate the ambition and skill of writer-director David Chase. Rarely, in fact, has a filmmaker made a first film which is so perfectly honed, balancing a truly personal sense of artistic expression with accessible, populist storytelling. But then, while this may be Chase's debut feature, he was the creator and guiding force behind almost a decade of HBO's The Sopranos, and the sensibility evident in that show - the lyricism and incisive portrayal of characters in just a few brief scenes - is again on display here.
It tells the seemingly autobiographical story of Douglas (John Magaro), a teenager growing up in New Jersey in the '60s, who forms a band with some of his high school friends. Along the way, he also clashes with his conservative Italian father (James Gandolfini) and begins a relationship with the ethereal middle class goddess he worshipped through his school years, Grace (Bella Heathcote).
Again, that all sounds a bit like the kind of mid-budget studio films that proliferated in the '90s, heavy on the period detail, with a soundtrack filled with obvious, nostalgia-inducing '60s hits, perhaps featuring Alec Baldwin and an unmistakeable suggestion of The Wonder Years.
But Chase is too refined as a storyteller for that. His film is elliptical, skipping through years and crucial plot points, ensuring the audience has to be attuned to gesture and nuance to understand his characters. These bandmates are a credible, breathing portrayal of late teens and the tensions and dynamics crackling between them - a complex, often uneasy stew of loyalty, affection and jealousy, with different goals and needs compromising what begins as a shared dream. Douglas is a painfully true character; pretentious and a little conceited, only half-aware of how important music and film - art! Chase is unafraid of declaring - will be in his life. His clashes with his old-fashioned father are, again, beautifully shaded; with paternal frustration and love mingling in some bitter arguments as the two men grope for empathy and understanding.
The arc of the band's development runs parallel with Douglas' relationship with Grace. Early on their competence and the excitement of the music - a lot of pumped-up blues covers, influenced mainly by the Rolling Stones, a comparison underlined by the audacious opening scene where we see a young Mick Jagger and Keith Richards meet on a London train, then hear our narrator, Douglas' little sister, compare that meeting to his founding of his own band - wins them fans and Chase show us triumphant early gigs at house parties and raw jamming sessions. Meanwhile he and Grace are slowly falling in love, little telling moments in conversation assuming massive importance, just as they do in life. Then the band cuts a demo, Douglas becomes singer and things are going well, just as Grace and he are a steady, loving couple.
Later everything gets messy, and the story shifts gears in the final act after a few small personal tragedies have rocked their young lives. Through all this, Chase is intent on the reality of experience. Mundane scenes in suburban kitchens and bickering relatives jostle with Douglas' important discoveries of Antonioni, Orson Welles and Leadbelly. His own relationship with blues music is cast in an uncomfortable light by a black co-workers love of Tony Bennett. The final scene is a breathtakingly bold move towards abstraction, and it finally suggests Chase's true goal here - to make a film about a young man's journey towards his calling, his discovery that art is what is truly important to him. The ending leaves a relationship in an ambiguous place - just as The Sopranos did - but thematically Chase has made himself clear.
What helps make this such a great little film are the details. All of the performances are good, and the period trappings feel authentic without ever splurging over into overstatement. The soundtrack is, predictably, superb, and Eigil Bryld's cinematography is richly atmospheric. But its the casual mastery of Chase that lingers. Like a great pop song, Not Fade Away is short and simple, yet somehow complex and even quietly profound.