With a production résumé that extends back almost 40 years, it’s difficult to gauge what David Chase brings to the party when he dons his director’s hat, with only the occasional television credit to his name. Among those few, however, are the noteworthy first and final episodes of The Sopranos, the exalted HBO drama he created and produced over the course of eight more or less consistent years. In fact, the final directorial/storytelling decision of the series, the enigmatic conclusion that many found infuriating, earned Chase a degree of notoriety that momentarily threatened to eclipse his larger achievement.
On the evidence of Not Fade Away, a few characteristics that describe Chase’s directorial personality begin to emerge, and we can begin to make sense of things. While it’s not exactly destructive or free-wheeling, his attitude toward traditional storytelling relies on the idea that viewers, when they see the film, aren’t wet-eared newborns, but are, to everyone’s benefit, forearmed with prior experience with similar stories about school friends, trying to get their basement rock ‘n roll band to make the transition from the farm league to playing legit shows and, if all goes well, taking that big, life-changing record deal. This isn’t unlike the way he presumed audiences had already “done the reading,” i.e. seen Goodfellas and at least the first two Godfather movies, before tuning into The Sopranos. This kind of presumption frees Chase to build Not Fade Away according to his other passions. The clichéd narrative serves as an empty vessel, which Chase then fills with as many moments of fond (or bittersweet) remembrance as he can recall or invent.
The result is a kind of pure filmmaking in the guise of a familiar object, a gleeful disregard for expectations in order to transmit to the audience sensations of the time, the music, the language, the clothing, and the way youthful hormones have a transformative effect on reality not unlike psychotropic drugs: enhanced, more vivid, and hyperreal. Again, while Chase’s attitude regarding narrative isn’t destructive, it’s at least playfully combative; the other genre that normally exerts a death-grip hold on this kind of story is the one exemplified by films like Forrest Gump and shows like Wonder Years and even Mad Men. These aspiring sagas of family and cultural life, their other strengths and weaknesses notwithstanding, sometimes find themselves burdened by a story structure that strains to acknowledge (even through countless layers of cliché) the events and Time/Life-certified images of the ‘60s.
In Chase’s hands, Not Fade Away acknowledges these alleged points of historical interest with casual, glazed disinterest, the way old-school New Yorkers might absent-mindedly catch a glimpse of the Empire State Building from the window of their taxicab. The Kennedy assassination and the landmark Ed Sullivan Beatles broadcast matter to these kids a whole lot less than going to parties, chasing skirt, and smoking pot. To the question “the Beatles or Elvis?” they’d choose a third option, the Rolling Stones. Seeing Mick Jagger on the tube, it’s apparent to Douglas (John Magaro), the film’s main character, that the days of matinee-idol/heartthrob rockers may be on the wane—i.e., if a gaunt, not obviously attractive guy like Mick can get with the ladies and sing the blues, there’s hope for the kid from Jersey too. Douglas’s inspirational moment, over in half a second, provides the motive force for a story that’s only partly of his own making.
Band sessions avoid most of the unnecessary setup baggage as well. Douglas and his buddies are already a fair distance up the road with their musical chops; in fact, the story’s chapters are delineated at a rapid clip, with minimal setup. Chase places enormous trust in the viewer to make up temporal lapses, pick up on rifts between characters with minimal evidence, and allow Chase the indulgence to screw around with the camera, lighting, cutting, sound, and music. While his experiments aren’t always fail-safe, and some parts of the film feel a little off (the sequence where Joy Deitz is carted off to the loony bin seems to have been smuggled in from a different movie, and not a good one), Not Fade Away triumphs when Chase’s empowerment as a kind of autobiographical historian is balanced with the thrill of submersing the viewer in the tidal pool of his memories.