11:04 AM EST, December 27, 2012
"That pianola sure brings back memories," says Orson Welles, entranced by Marlene Dietrich's bordello background music in "Touch of Evil." A few moments of this scene pop up on somebody's television in "Not Fade Away," the wry feature film debut by writer-director David Chase, creator of "The Sopranos."
The "Touch of Evil" scene's there for a reason. Whoever we are, wherever we grew up, a chord, a chorus, a song always waits to airlift us back to our former selves. For Chase, clearly, the band the Rolling Stones is his touchstone. Early in "Not Fade Away," set in the 1960s and mostly in New Jersey, Mick Jagger and the Stones make their American TV debut on a Dean Martin-hosted special. Though Dino rolled his eyes (as did half the nation's viewers), many were slain and hooked.
Somewhat autobiographical and worth seeing despite its somewhat muffled quality, "Not Fade Away" deals with one such fan, Douglas Damiano, played by John Magaro. We follow Doug's experience in a high school band; the band after high school; Doug in love and on the outs with his baffled family (why won't he get a haircut?); and further into a decade changing faster than he is.
With a fluid sense of time passing and a witty eye for the domestic props of the era, Chase keeps an eye on the little things. In one scene, a teenage party stops dead while Jagger, on the TV, spellbinds every girl in the rec room. Doug and his bandmates, Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill), wonder what they can do with that sort of sensual power. They wonder if they'll ever have a fraction of it. The movie cherishes the multidirectional pop and rock of the era, and the soundtrack is terrific.
Doug's father wants none of this world. He's more comforted by a rerun of "South Pacific" than anything seen, heard or dreaded in his own suburban middle-class Jersey home. James Ganldofini plays this part, with supreme firsthand knowledge. The film, to mixed results, is narrated by Doug's younger sister Evelyn, played by Meg Guzulescu. As Doug romances the exotic Grace (Bella Heathcote), he tries to be a Bob Dylan, with a little Jagger, a Kink or two and an ever-shifting version of himself. The band's struggles (Chase was in a band, too, once) give "Not Fade Away" its deliberately tricky tone, both affectionate and a little sad.
Doug's a bit of a cipher, and if any one aspect of Chase's film keeps it from being more than merely coolly engaging (which it is), it's the casting. As scripted and as played by Magaro, the entry point in "Not Fade Away" remains either a pleasant blur or a blank slate, depending on your personal response, contrasted by all the lovely details in the margins of Chase's atmospheric krrraaanggg! down memory lane.
'Not Fade Away' -- 3 stars
MPAA rating: R (for pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content)
Running time: 1:52
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