In "Not Fade Away," first-time filmmaker David Chase (HBO's "The Sopranos") pens a love letter to the dawn of the 1960s that could only come from someone who was there. Chase, 67, clearly has a lot of feelings to express, though he isn't sure how. The result is a movie that feels at once deeply personal and more than a little confused.
"It's not an autobiography," Chase has said, though the evidence often contradicts him. The central character of Doug (John Magaro) has much in common with his creator: Italian-American, raised in New Jersey by a difficult mother (Molly Price) and a bullying father (a very good James Gandolfini), drumming in a rock band but toying with the idea of film school.
Magaro leads an ensemble of charismatic newcomers who keep this movie watchable, despite its disjointed, aimless feel. The band's guitarist, Wells (Will Brill), talks a bigger game than he plays, singer Eugene (Jack Huston, the "Boardwalk Empire" star and nephew of the actor Danny Huston) proves an erratic stage presence and various rhythm sections come and go. Meanwhile, Doug takes over vocals but begins focusing more on pretty Grace (Bella Heathcote, of "Dark Shadows") than on his band, which never even decides on a name.
"Not Fade Away," which shares its title with the Rolling Stones' 1964 cover of a Buddy Holly tune, wants to sum up the simultaneous adolescences of Doug, the nation and rock music. (The inclusion of the Sex Pistols' mangled cover of "Roadrunner," a 1979 anachronism, suggests a vague theory.) Ultimately, though, there's no story on which to hang these larger themes. The band we're following barely exists, which means no dreams are ever broken, no lessons ever learned. As for Doug, who seems increasingly drawn to film and television, we already know what will happen to him.
PLOT In the early 1960s, a group of New Jersey teenagers forms a rock band.
RATING R (language, drug use, sexuality, prolific smoking)
CAST John Magaro, Bella Heathcote, James Gandolfini, Will Brill
BOTTOM LINE A heartfelt but muddled film debut from David Chase, whose affection for rock and roll can't overcome weak characters and a narrative vacuum.