Not Fade Away: A sloppy Valentine to misspent youth

January 3, 2013

Not Fade Away
Grade: 85
Cast: John Magaro, Jack Huston, Dominique McElligott, James Gandolfini, Will Brill
Director: David Chase
Rating: R, for language, sex, drug use, brief nudity
Running time: 112 minutes

Not Fade Away is a silly, self-indulgent movie with a messy plot full of stereotypical characters and cliches.

And I loved it.

Not enough to call it a good movie, but enough to recommend it to a certain kind of moviegoer, maybe anyone who’s ever been in, or hung around, a rock ’n’ roll band that never made it.

I’ll stipulate here that I know next to nothing about David Chase. I know his name from The Sopranos, a television show that was one of my enthusiasms for several years. I can guess that Chase is from New Jersey, or at least that he spent his formative years there. I would guess that Not Fade Away is at least emotional autobiography. While it might seem like a familiar story — and it is — it gets a lot of the details right. It is maybe the best movie I’ve ever seen for replicating the heady feeling — the possession of secret knowledge — that comes with being in a pop band with simpathico buds.

This is the story of Doug Damiano (John Magaro), a lowly drummer and self-descrined “loser with the ladies” who attempts to rise above his “skinny physique and skuzzy complexion” by becoming the lead singer in his garage band. In doing so, he has to displace his friend, a vain would-be local star (played with precision by Jack Huston) who doesn’t understand that it is — as Jagger’s dictum holds — “the singer not the song.” (Besides Doug may be a better singer anyway, at least he’s got what passes for a grit of Otis Redding soul in his throaty voice)

What else? Well, we have the obligatory rich (and experienced) girlfriend who would be out of the ex-drummer’s league if not for his ascension; and the father (James Gandolfini) who doesn’t understand the long hair and other lacy affe3ctations of the role Doug has taken on. And a wise little sister (Meg Guzulescu), who’s there to narrate and do the frug. And even a motorcycle accident that shakes up the band.

Honestly, I can’t defend the film on any grounds other than the sentimental — it hit me in a vulnerable spot. The clothes looked right. The egos clashed just like that. I knew that bass player.

It’s an old song, a standard, by some lights a golden oldie. But the band covers the familiar tune pretty well. In a different, minor key than 1996’s That Thing You Do.

And it has the best soundtrack — thanks to Little Steven Van Zandt — of any film I’ve heard this year.

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