David Chase’s feature-film debut as a writer-director tackles nothing less than the whole of the 1960s, from the death of JFK and the debut of The Beatles to the decline of the hippie ideal in a spiral of drug abuse and dissension. The Sopranos creator watches it all through the eyes of someone whose biography is a lot like his own: a working-class New Jersey Italian-American kid played by John Magaro, who mans the drums for a garage-rock band while dreaming of moving to Los Angeles to make movies. Not Fade Away focuses on Magaro’s creative disputes with his band’s guitarist (Jack Huston), who’s perfectly content playing cover songs for the local teenagers who idolize him, while Magaro wants to transition to writing originals like The Rolling Stones did. The film also tracks Magaro’s combative relationships: with his girlfriend (Bella Heathcote), his former high-school crush object who proves to be more complicated than she ever was in his fantasies; and with his father (James Gandolfini), who can’t understand why he busted his hump for 20 years for the sake of this long-haired college dropout.
The primary subject of Not Fade Away is how the revolutions of the ’60s affected one ordinary American family, which is such familiar material that not even a writer as skilled as Chase can make it wholly fresh. Chase’s take is more rooted in real-world details than most, and is never cartoony or blindly nostalgic, but he still relies on the old “it was a time of change” storytelling beats, from family disagreements over the civil-rights movement to a lot of “my son dresses like a queer” from Gandolfini. Worse, Not Fade Away has a muddled, meandering narrative, where events sometimes appear to happen out of their proper chronological order, and where it seems after a while that Chase could end the movie anywhere and it wouldn’t make much difference.
But while Not Fade Away is undeniably a mess, it’s a loveable kind of mess, where the missteps come from daring, not caution. Chase is covering well-trod ground, but he’s showing his own personal corner of it, lovingly filming the basements, street corners, and sandwich shops where he grew up. Then he ties it all to the transformative power of rock ’n’ roll, which the film’s narrator—Magaro’s romantic little sister—describes as filling ordinary kids with outrageous dreams. Chase deals with the mundane reality that squashes those dreams, but he doesn’t downplay the dreams themselves, which he keeps honoring throughout Not Fade Away, right up to an audaciously abstract final scene that rivals the end of The Sopranos for sheer nerve.