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Like The Sopranos, Not Fade Away, the debut feature of the series' creator David Chase, is set deep in New Jersey with the influence/threat of New York City always looming. But rather than centering the narrative on a web of modern-day gangsters, he follows a batch of 1960s suburban teens who share the Sopranos' love of four-letter words, as they attempt to carve an identity separate from their parents amid the time's quickly changing cultural mores. Unfortunately, Chase doesn't appreciate the differences between the two forms, and the result is a film that flails at every step.
The film sets up an environment rich for exploration, peopled with potentially interesting characters from the politically charged "outrageous" painter, to the screeching mother who threatens suicide at the slightest provocation, to the wannabe rock star with his poseur politics of rebellion, and his blue-collar father (James Gandolfini, the film's only stand out), whose confounded by his son's long hair and artsy ambitions. But with only two hours, Chase has no time to develop these characters, much less to carve out compelling arcs for them. His attempts to do so are ultimately scattershot in a way that leaves most characters stranded along the way, never to be seen again or receive their resolution. Not Fade Away appears less like a movie and more like a rough outline for the first season of a '60s-set TV show.
The senseless editing style further cripples the film, starting and stopping scenes with no apparent motive. Time passes in an unclear blur as weeks and days slip by with little effect on the characters, and awkward lines of exposition dialogue are wedged in to do the heavy lifting. Actually, the dialogue throughout is uninspired, a major obstacle to the cast that only Gandolfini manages to overcome, thanks in part to his extraordinary screen presence. Still, all this might have been forgiven if Not Fade Away made vibrant the music and times of the 1960s, but even here it falls short.
Chase relies firmly on degraded black and white archival footage of TV performances to translate the excitement of the emerging music scene, a device that is nostalgic but not exhilarating. The music the band the boys form creates is mediocre and forgettable, failing to inspire the way other classic rock dramas have. But worst of all, while Chase seems nostalgic for the dreams of stardom and hope for revolution that his teen characters share, he gives them only rote outbursts about Vietnam, sexual revolution and the power of rock 'n roll that actually earned laughs from the audience. Chase makes their dreams laughable, deriding his own characters. Ultimately it's this mix of nostalgia for youth and disdain for its naivete that makes Not Fade Away frustrating, but I doubt even that will make it memorable.
Not Fade Away is now playing at the New York Film Festival.