Not Fade Away
Directed by David Chase
Starring: John Magaro, Jack Huston, Will Brill, Bella Heathcote
Rated R for pervasive language, some drug use and sexual content
1 hr. 52 mins.

When rock and roll was born, America was one country. By the time the music industry turned it into big business, the country had changed into something completely different.

If you weren’t there, it’s hard to describe, but here’s just a short list of rock’s subtexts: race riots, the Vietnam War, feminism, the sexual revolution, environmentalism and political chaos. Strange to say, but the heartbeat of each of these movements was connected to some variation of rock and roll. It was the music that defined the protest. It was rock and roll that became its soundtrack.

In Not Fade Away, director David Chase, creator of the HBO series The Sopranos, does his best to capture a small piece of that dynamic birth. Nestled between big names like the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were thousands of kids and their garage bands who dreamed about having their names posted on a marquee.

Chase should know. He was one of those kids, a drummer and bass player from the early 1960s who tried to pursue a rock and roll career before branching off into filmmaking.

Set in suburban New Jersey, Douglas (John Magaro) comes from a conservative Italian family. Father Pat (James Gandolfini) and mother Antoinette (Molly Price) still hold on to Old World values. But Douglas is a child of the new revolution. His life is captured by rock and roll, drugs, and a horny desire to impress the chicks. And at the very top of his wish list:  being in a band.

In high school, Douglas is invited to be a drummer for a cover band that includes his friends Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill). Like most high school bands, they start raw and often suck. But they have big dreams, and after a few years they finally gel and think about hitting the big time.

Most band films deal with the obstacles, success, tragedy and final resolution of a band’s history. As a picture about the early history of rock and roll, Chase has chosen a different path, one based on his own personal experience. He knows that for every band that makes it, there are thousands that don’t. Chase was one of those thousands and tries to capture some of that near-miss emotion, the hubris of the dream and the disappointment of being good, but not that good.

He has the cast to carry this out, including an excellent performance by John Magaro, the Dylanesque Italian son who claws his way up through the band to become its lead singer.

The problem with this film is its storyline. Despite Chase’s attempt to capture a unique vantage point, the story itself sometimes sags and becomes predictable.

There’s also a running debate about the value of rock as art versus the business of making a living. Given the era Not Fade Away explores, this feels like a false argument. Rock as art came later with the rise of bands like Yes and Pink Floyd, but in the beginning it was about drinking, partying and getting laid.

Chase has made a valentine to his early days in rock and roll, and it’s that personal exploration that offsets the bland storytelling. These observations and the music itself, which includes everything from blues to Nancy Sinatra, and Lead Belly to the Rolling Stones, keep the film entertaining.

No doubt the ’60s were weird. Not Fade Away reminds us just how quickly that weirdness spread across America. And thanks to Chase, you can go back to the beginning of rock and enjoy that weirdness.

This is not a great film, but forget that. It’s the soundtrack that makes it worthwhile. So just settle back and enjoy the pulse. It’s what America became after all those jangling guitars kicked in and the country started to party.