Chris Knipp Writing: Movies, Politics, Art


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PostPosted: Fri Oct 05, 2012 12:33 pm 
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Growing up in a band that doesn't make it big

David Chase, who created the super-successful and groundbreaking HBO series "The Sopranos," has chosen a nostalgic Sixties picture about a garage band for his debut as a movie director. It is a nice little film and has some sharp dialogue, but it trods familiar ground. The one thing that makes it stand out is that this one band for a change belongs to the vast majority that do not go on to become famous, like the Rolling Stones whose songs they covered at first. Instead they basically do fade away. They prove to be not ambitious and hard-working enough to pay their dues at cheap clubs like their idols (or the Beatles in Hamburg), their dissolution sealed with several dropouts and a lead singer who goes to California to study film.

This is an interesting and valid topic but of course runs the risk of being less interesting than the dramatic success stories. Not Fade Away itself fades when compared to a film like Anton Corbijn's 2007 Control, about Joy Division and Ian Curtis, the lead singer who committed suicide just when the band was becoming known (played by Sam Riley in the film). Chase's protagonist, Douglas (John Magaro), is a sometime ditch digger at a golf course semi-obsessed by "The Twilight Zone" who becomes the lead singer of the band. He's no Ian Curtis. He can sing surprisingly well and has also got a nice East Coast edge to his voice when he speaks, but he's just menat to be an Italian-American guy from New Jersey, and to prove it his father Pat, manager of a Pet Boys shop, is played by James Gandolfini, Chase's "Sopranos" star. But that Douglas isn't a future rock idol is the point. Instead the Jersey boys of Chase's movie serve as touchstones for a review of the early Sixties, the period from their late teens to early twenties, through a variety of hair styles and outfits, at a time when Kennedy was assassinated, Vietnam heated up, and rock and roll took on the importance it still has today.

Like the cast of Control, this one learned to play their instruments and sing and perform the music they're seen performing in the scenes. That's a plus. A minus is the extent to which Chase piggy-backs into the period and a sense of the music the same way the characters do, by using clips at key moments. The movie opens with a clip of a Fifties salt-'n-pepper rock and roll band. And when the young band performs one of their covers the sound is spectacular -- too spectacular. Little discernible effort seems to have been made to duplicate the sound of primitive, limited amplification equipment and instruments.

The other cast members are not bad. Will Brill plays a rich, obnoxious guitarist and Jack Huston is touching as Eugene, the would-be lead singer who can't quite cut it. Bella Heathcote is cute and serviceable as Douglas' girlfriend Grace, who's always liked him and moves in when he becomes visible as a musician. There are mixed messages but at different points she tells him "time is on his side" (echoing the Stones) and she believes in him. Dominique Mcelliogott provides necessary period color as her nutty, drug-damaged sister, whose parents have her committed.

Part of the period portrait is of course the cultural and generational conflicts, Grace's parents with her dysfunctional sister, and Douglas with his dad. There is the obligatory moment when a teenage girl tells the adults at a barbecue that "coloreds" are now to be called "African Americans" (historically inaccurate) and that "fag" is a term that's "unfair to the homosexual community" and should be replaced with "gay." But this sort of thing and the slight references to car culture are secondary. Chase's main object is to declare that he loves rock and roll (with the sui generis sound track of his own personal favorites to prove it) and that the music was the heart of the era and of coming of age for his generation.

It is the essence and distinction of the story that for this band there is no big break, only the usual moments of conflict among band members over roles and direction. There are few original scenes. One memorable one occurs when Douglas' dad (Gandalfini), who has lymphatic cancer (barely acknowledged in the plot except for him mentioning it), takes his son to an Italian seafood restaurant so they can have a "serous talk" about what it might be like for him to take over the family with his father gone. The conversation isn't very memorable, but the moment is. The climactic scene comes when the boys perform for a music producer, and he talks to him afterward. That they'd get a contract is their fantasy. They really aren't that good. And they have, so far, only one original song. He tells them to go and perform in dive bars seven nights a week, to get the experience. Though in the somewhat patchy screenplay it's not openly stated, but they're really not as a group willing or able to do this, and so this is a pivotal moment between rock and roll dreams and everyday reality.

The original song was composed by Steven Van Zandt, a "Sopranos" cast member and the musical guru for the film, who helped the actors develop into a band and even got a drum coach for Magaro who played with the Beatles. Working together for three or four months before the sixty-day shoot, the core cast of guys became friends, and their camaraderie no doubt contributes to the spirit of the film, which is very positive. But it's hard to say -- is this movie a success? I'd say not so much, but it is what you make of it, since it's riddled with pop touchstones and standard rocker coming of age scenes.

Prodouced by Paramount and distributed by the Weinstein Company, Not Fade Away is scheduled for a limited US release December 21. Screened for this review as part of the New York Film Festival at Lincoln Center, where it premieres and is one of the Main Slate films.

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┬ęChris Knipp. Blog: http://chrisknipp.blogspot.com/.


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