Not Fade Away
If you’ve ever seen "The Sopranos," you know esteemed writer/director David Chase has a bit of a thing for Martin Scorsese. So it’s not much of a surprise that his feature debut is indebted to the Italian-American master filmmaker in every way. It’s all here: A rockin’ 1960s based soundtrack; emphatic camera swings that groove along with them; a deceptively dark portrait of America, its prejudices, and its obsession with hero-worship; a narrative that dances through historical events, with many ellipses carrying us from year to year. This is the most Martin Scorsese-like movie to ever be made by someone other than Martin Scorsese.
And at times, you find yourself wishing Chase had handed off the script to the man himself. But his film - about four Jersey boys in the early 1960s who, realizing people like Mick Jagger are making it possible for skinny un-athletic white kids to be sexy, decide to start their own band- ends up well enough anyway. He makes it his own, taking this coming-of-age tale (the emotions of which Scorsese would’ve likely cranked up to near-melodrama, for whatever it’s worth,) and giving it a decidedly European flavor.
The characters all fail to mature, there’s a decidedly cynical existentialist vibe to the way everyone searches for meaning in fame, and there’s a pervading sense of dissatisfaction in every scene (a feeling never dispelled.) When the characters go to a theater to see Antonioni’s masterpiece "Blow-up," which deals with some similar ideas, it doesn’t feel like an unearned reference; and that’s quite a compliment.
Because indeed, in most filmmaker’s hands, the band headed by Douglas (John Magaro) and his buddies would make it to the big time; eventually enjoying all the press conferences they crassly plan out as teens and 20-somethings. Doug would certainly end up with his schoolyard crush Grace (the luminous Bella Heathcote,) as opposed to having a wedge dropped into their relationship by a little thing called the sexual revolution. And he’d certainly come to terms with his vitriolic father (played, in the films unquestioned highlight, by James Gandolfini), who spends most of the movie spouting off era-appropriate racial slurs and accosting his son’s new faux-Dylan fashion as something that "looks right off the boat."
But Chase never takes that easy road out; instead he plays up every character’s selfishness until they inevitably, and destructively, crash up against each other (as well as against the many struggles of the day - from Vietnam to ridiculous mental health diagnoses; he’s sure to never cast a sentimental eye on his rockin’ past.) It all leads to a haunting, ambiguous, LA-set conclusion not unlike that which closed "The Sopranos." Unfortunately, he keeps going for another 60 seconds.
I won’t detail the last minute of the film, but needless to say, it’s an unmitigated disaster: a meta-textual flourish that handily wipes away all the oblique observations and ambiguous themes for something direct, easy, and digestible. It takes a challenging, open-ended film and reduces it to a simple thesis statement; a catchphrase; a tag-line. No doubt, Chase was trying to make a Great American Film. And he almost succeeded.