I anticipated “The Sopranos” creator David Chase’s first feature film “Not Fade Away” with some dread, since over the years I’ve been disappointed with most attempts at rock & roll films. When friends suggest that I, as a vocal music fanatic, onetime record store manager, and former record company exec, must have enjoyed “High Fidelity,” “Almost Famous,” “The Boat That Rocked,” “Telstar” or whatever the latest abomination is, I have a hard time explaining my antipathy without sounding like a hyper-critical nutcase. I could go on and on about those films – for instance, how the transposition in “High Fidelity” from London to Chicago almost killed it dead immediately for me, or how the groupies in “Almost Famous” had such lusterous, clean hair and acne-free complexions I never believed they could find time for backstage blowjobs in between all those hours primping).
The movies that I think get rock & roll right, or at least don’t blow it entirely, tend to focus on a plot that uses music as decoration, or metaphor, so I argue that “Performance,” “Mean Streets” and “Blow-Up” are much better rock movies than the ones that are straight-ahead bio-pics or go at a musical subject head-on. Yes, I’ve been thrilled occasionally (“A Hard Day’s Night,” “Phantom Of the Paradise,” “Backbeat,” “Privilege”) but the last few decades have been pretty dire once you venture outside actual music documentaries, which have been consistently good.
“Not Fade Away” opened in theatres in December but was just about gone by the time I managed to see it in mid-January, a matinee with me as the only patron in the place. (I just checked – it cost $20 million and has taken in half a million at the box office so far.) “Not Fade Away” has Steve Van Zandt as executive producer and general music director, and the plot concerns a garage band in mid-sixties New Jersey. It starts (disasterously it seems to me) with Keith and Mick meeting on the train in London (filmed in black & white). I recognized right away who these guys were before the dialog kicked in to let us know (“I’ve been playing a bit with Dick Taylor”), but why start a film about New Jersey in London? The film is full of licensed music by The Rolling Stones, The Beatles, The Rascals, Small Faces, The Left Banke and dozens of others, and the Stones come around as an object of desire several times (main character Douglas spots Charlie Watts at a Hollywood party for instance), but aside from the truisms – like we all used to stare at album covers in the sixties for fashion advice — who cares?
I suppose this London section, with Keith and Mick bonding over American blues, is meant to indicate the main theme of the film: that an obscure garage band that never gets past the small-town demo stage is motivated by the same creative quest, endures the same emotional and creative upheavals, and can be respected just as much as the groups that become famous. The leader of the New Jersey band Douglas is the same “type” as Mick Jagger. (I found Douglas a bit dim. He wonders how the English found out about Leadbelly when he’s unknown to white Americans, but doesn’t seem to register the contradiction when he mentions he knows some of the Negro folk songs from singing them in elementary school music class.)
Unfortunately, the film just meanders from one incident to another, following a trajectory that is easily anticipated (the sheepish backing vocalist takes over the microphone up front, the finally-together couple have a big fight and then reconcile, the cranky dad eventually shows his son some love). It ends half-a-dozen times, lurching along through the obligatory scenes (small-town New Jersey guy stands on back deck of Malibu mansion, big-time New York producer tells band they’re not ready for the big time). It all seemed phony to me. It didn’t help the movie, straining to get the haircuts, cars and cuban heels right, botches some big details, for instance indicating that “The Twilight Zone” was on just about anytime you turned on the TV in 1965 – even after midnight on New Year’s Eve!
I did like a couple moments, including one in which Douglas tries to bond with a black laborer over “the blues” and gets firmly rebuffed. And watching a young band struggle through “Time Is On My Side” long enough to win over a few of the girls in the audience reminded me of similar thrills I had in my own short time in the garages of the San Fernando Valley. David Chase fails to find a coherent path beyond those type of “I remember that” moments for viewers of a certain age.
Structurally, the movie is a mess, most especially when it drops in voiceover narration randomly, trying to fill in gaps, until for the last scene the storytelling breaks down entirely at Hollywood & Vine circa 1968, where Douglas’ little sister talks directly to the camera and then boogaloos to The Sex Pistols’ version of “Road Runner,” which I guess is supposed to represent The Future. Or something.