‘Not Fade Away” is the second of two recent films in which a successful son of Hollywood gets up close and personal. The first was Judd Apatow’s “This Is 40,” which concerns itself with the stresses of the present. “Not Fade Away” is about the romance of the past, and it comes to us from writer-director David Chase, who made his bones with “The Sopranos” but has apparently been carrying this movie around inside his head for decades.
All I can say is beware of filmmakers who’ve been carrying pet projects around for decades: They’ve long since lost the necessary distance and they want to cram everything in. (See “The Tree of Life” for a more epic example.) “Not Fade Away” is Chase’s fictionalized memoir of growing up a rebellious, rock-loving teenager in suburban New Jersey, and it’s both achingly affectionate and a terrible mess. Chase’s métier, it turns out, is the one-hour, present-tense drama. Aiming for a generational statement that encompasses the entire ’60s experience, he turns unexpectedly inept.
That said, there are lovely moments amid the rubble. “Not Fade Away” even begins with one: a teenage nebbish named Doug (John Magaro) in a high school auditorium, looking longingly at The Girl (Bella Heathcote as the upper-class Grace) as she looks longingly at the band onstage. Right there is the source of so many rock ’n’ roll dreams: If I get on that stage, she might see me.
Doug’s a drummer, after a fashion, bashing out variations on “The Twist.” Then the Beatles hit, and the Stones, and suddenly Doug looks at Mick and Keef and realizes a skinny physique and a scuzzy complexion aren’t so bad after all. He joins a band led by the local music stud (Jack Huston) and one night during a house-party gig, Doug takes lead vocals on “Time Is on My Side.” The miracle happens: The Girl sees him.
“Not Fade Away” might be content to stay in that moment and its immediate aftermath — like a more concentrated version of John Sayles’s 1983 classic “Baby It’s You” — but Chase keeps going. And going. The V-neck shirts turn to leather jackets and caftans, Doug’s hair sprouts out and up until he’s a ringer for Al Kooper circa 1966, the soundtrack expands to include the Kinks, Dylan, the blues, Van Morrison, and “Itchykoo Park” before leaving us on the doorstep of the Sex Pistols’ cover of Jonathan Richman’s “Roadrunner.”
There are breakups and makeups, fistfights and motorcycle crashes, demos and a meeting with music industry powerhouse Jerry Ragavoy (Brad Garrett, suitably crass). Doug’s dad is played by James Gandolfini as a defeated working-class lump — Tony Soprano robbed of all power — who can’t understand how his son will get into the Army looking like a fruit.
It goes on: cancer scares and mental institutions and weird older sisters playing Robert Johnson records up in the attic. “Not Fade Away” namechecks the cultural watersheds with knowing confidence. (Doug to Grace in a screening of Antonioni’s “Blow-Up”: “What kinda movie is this? Nothing happens.”) Chase knows that a line like “I left my roach clip at Oberlin” can sum up an entire era, and when the film pauses to simply take in the glory of Bo Diddley singing his namesake tune on TV, it locates the heartbeat that sustained a lot of people’s adolescences.
The problem is that Chase can’t figure out how to put the pieces together. “Not Fade Away” is shockingly flat-footed when it comes to filmmaking basics like temporal transitions — we’re always shooting awkwardly forward into the next pop moment — and his dialogue drifts and stalls with frustrating lack of purpose. The artier camera choices seem odd: Why are we zooming into Doug’s ear? The film is narrated by a minor character, the hero’s little sister (Meg Guzulescu), for no discernible reason. It’s as though Chase were pouring his entire youth onto the kitchen table without any idea of how to shape it. So he doesn’t.
By the time Doug sees a mysterious omen in the sky for the second time, you realize you’re watching a film of very private meanings. Sometimes those meanings coalesce into something quite beautiful. Toward the end, Doug walks the midnight streets of Los Angeles, lost and found at the same time, the future stretching out before him like an open boulevard. You can almost see the 20-year-old David Chase superimposed onto the character, and anyone who has been young and at the start of something may shiver in recognition. For all its ungainliness, we should be glad he made this movie. We should be just as glad he got it out of his system.