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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Saturday, April 19, 2014

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In Movies & TV Reviews

"Not Fade Away" hit theaters on Friday.

"Not Fade Away" hits almost all the right notes


"The Sopranos" wasn't just a really good television show; it was a game changer. The mafia drama not only cleaned house at award shows and annually topped critics' lists, but it set the new standard for TV. You like shows like "Mad Men" and "Boardwalk Empire?" Thank "The Sopranos" and creator David Chase for making mature, movie-quality television not only possible but also profitable.

So when Chase decides to make his debut trip from the small screen to the silver screen, even for a small-scale indie film with a tiny budget and minimal buzz, the results merit a look. While "Not Fade Away," the writer-director's intimate, earnest tribute to the '60s and youthful dreams of rock and roll, may not provide a big, transcendent experience matching his HBO hit, it is worthy of Chase's acclaimed name. It's like the band playing open mic night that may get a little pitchy, but it's got soul, and the lyrics come from the heart.

John Magaro stars as Douglas, a young New Jersey kid awkwardly growing up in high school during the '60s when rock was becoming king – at least for the kids. The older generation, like Doug's parents (Molly Price and "Sopranos" veteran James Gandolfini), certainly doesn't get it.

Even Dean Martin, the coolest of the cool cats, can only roll his eyes and look confused at the audience after the Rolling Stones' American TV debut on "The Hollywood Palace." "Ain't they great," he sarcastically asks the audience. Poor Dino, you've never seemed so square.

Inspired by the Stones' lead, Douglas forms a small town band of his own with several of his friends, including lead singer Eugene (Jack Huston, who plays the masked gangster Richard Harrow on "Boardwalk Empire"), Wells (Will Brill) and Joe (Brahm Vaccarella). Together, they begin to make a name for themselves in their small Jersey town.

Of course, tensions arise in the band. The question of who's the better lead singer emerges after Eugene accidentally swallows a joint (it's a long story), forcing Douglas into the lead singer role for a gig. Douglas's fledgling romance with his popular high school sweetheart (Bella Heathcote, participating in a far better love story than in her previous film, "Dark Shadows") only adds to the fighting and drama between members.

There are questions of how far they can go and whether the band has a future. His dad certainly doesn't think so, frustratingly watching his son drop out of college, become increasingly vocal about the era's hot topics and, perhaps most infuriating, look more and more like Bob Dylan.

These plotlines and dramas may seem like pretty well trodden territory, but what makes "Not Fade Away," well, not fade away is Chase's sense of authenticity and intimacy, attributes that also helped make "The Sopranos" one of television's finest.

The film is reportedly semi-autobiographical. Chase grew up in New Jersey, struggled with his parents, served as a drummer with aspirations of stardom and eventually dropped out of college before transferring and studying film. Even without knowing these things, however, "Not Fade Away" feels like a product of personal experience.

The period detail, with its restrained and fairly dark presentation of the '60s, feels just right, and the interactions between band members and family members crackle with the kind of honest, lived-in touches that could only have been pulled from real past memories. Most of these moments occur between Douglas and his father, who rage against one another throughout most of the film (normally involving Gandolfini telling Magaro that he looks like he just came off the boat) before an illness causes the two to attempt to forget the growing generation gap and awkwardly try to bond.

The audience also gets a suitably rocking soundtrack (aided by music supervisor and E Street Band member Steven Van Zandt), featuring classics from the Rolling Stones, the Rascals and other early rock legends, as well as some killer covers and tracks from the film's band, the Twylight Zones. They're already great, fun songs, and Chase lovingly incorporates them into the story, lingering on the performances, the universal impact and the soul that pop music used to have.

While "Not Fade Away" is Chase's big move to feature film, its structure is still very much television, bouncing from plot thread to plot thread without much consistent development. Think "Game of Thrones" and how it jumps from character to character within each episode, giving just enough time to each to move it forward and give a little development before going somewhere else.

Chase obviously doesn't have the privilege of multiple episodes to develop stories and characters in the case of "Not Fade Away," which does hurt. At the same time, he does have a solid cast that helps fill in the holes the script leaves open. Gandolfini and Huston are very good, and while I had to warm up to him, Magaro ends up being a very capable, interesting lead. Plus, the constant bounding around keeps the film moving with a surprisingly natural beat until it reaches its strangely heartfelt and bittersweet finale.

As one growing up and living during a time when musicians only seem to make a cultural impact if they wear a meat dress or impregnate Kim Kardashian, there's something pleasantly nostalgic about "Not Fade Away" – even in between the household fights and band drama – that made me reminisce for a time before I was even born.

It's a honest love note to the days when music was about a couple of guys bonding over music and having shared dreams of, well, cue the title.



Theaters and showtimes for Not Fade Away
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