Monday, May 6, 2013

"Not Fade Away" is a Return to David Chase's Storytelling Tics, But Lacks His Emotional Power

Back in June of 2007, The Sopranos finished, closing out on a cut-to-black that confounded the world.  Afterward, creator David Chase remained relatively silent about the ending, and left TV to work in film.  The product of his five-year disappearance was Not Fade Away, which takes Chase's obsession with 60s and 70s rock that always existed underneath the surface of The Sopranos and brings it straight to the forefront.  Chronicling the explosion of rock n roll through the eyes of a young drummer in a band, the film examines the widening generation gap of an entire era through a narrow and intimate lens.

It's clear that there are some things that David Chase didn't fully get out of his system during his six-year run writing The Sopranos, as Not Fade Away features the same fractious familial connections, aching sense of nostalgia, and existential dread that its legendary predecessor was known for.  Stylistically, it's interesting as well, with its use of intense close-ups and warm grainy look.  The film moves from dimly lit basement to dimly lit basement, framing time through holidays and milestones in rock history.  Eventually everything whirls by so fast that you lose a sense of exactly what month and year it is in the wake of these dreamlike progressions.  Music is the most important thing in these young people's lives, and the performance scenes -- of which there are many -- are largely excellent.  Perhaps the greatest quality of Not Fade Away is it's ability to capture the seemingly uncapturable -- the great love that one feels for a band or a song without being able to fully articulate it.  When focusing on the core of the plot, things aren't always interesting, but the film excels when it explores the artistic process and the battle between creative expression and broad recognition.

Somewhere in the middle though, it becomes pretty unfocused, with its low-key narrative eventually just becoming white noise between the music performances.  It's an interesting choice to mention in the beginning that the band will never become anything significant, but it also takes away any kind of tension in an already laid-back story.  There are certainly thematic tensions that Chase is trying to express, but for a long stretch, they land with a plop rather than a bang.  His work has always had a sense of coldness to it, but in The Sopranos it was chilling, whereas in Not Fade Away it's just chilly.

Things get much more interesting in the third act, which contains 25 of the most fascinating minutes of any film from last year.  Once the protagonist moves to LA, the film becomes a lyrical and meditative look into broken dreams and past failures.  Going full-on Sopranos, the ending is at once bizarre and absorbing.  It's likely to anger many, but I doubt I'll be able to shake it any time soon.  For all of its challenging brilliance, the final moments only remind you of just how aimless the events leading up to it were.  Surprisingly, the film closes out on a much more optimistic note than expected, but Not Fade Away too frequently gets lost nostalgically gazing into its own navel.

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