David Chase can write great characters, great dialogue and great scenarios. The Sopranos buys him some benefit of the doubt with Not Fade Away, his first film and, somewhat regrettably, an autobiographical one. The benefit of the doubt doesn't win in the end.
Chase is so enamored with the music of his youth and his own youthful pursuit of it that he's failed to make anything about his story all that special. Boy meets band. Boy falls in love with band. Band doesn't make it big. It's nothing new.
So, yes, decades before The Sopranos (and Northern Exposure, which he executive produced), David Chase was a drummer in a rock band influenced by an absurd amount of iconic groups. The Rolling Stones and the Beatles, whose original music is expensive and tough to get for film projects, are heard time and again to help provide the backdrop to Chase's slightly fictionalized life story.
Looking back at himself, David becomes Douglas (John Magaro). His father (James Gandolfini) doesn't much like this rock 'n' roll and certainly doesn't like his son's new longer hair or strangely colorful clothes. Douglas was headed for the Army before he was bowled over by the British Invasion. Like it did to so many kids around the world during the 1960s, rock 'n' roll spoke to the teenager and changed the course of his life. The band, whose name remained fluid throughout the '60s, became everything.
Because there's nothing really fascinating about any of this—from the characters to the representation of the era to the situations—it's difficult not to be cynical about Chase's motivations. Why should we care that the creator of The Sopranos was in a band that didn't quite make it? Ultimately, that's what we're left to decide.
There are some good things here, though. Magaro captures the spirit of the decade, the awkwardness of being a teenager trying to be 30, and the all-consuming love of music that hypnotizes so many amateur rock stars. Douglas also falls for a girl (of course), and Bella Heathcote, the "normal" girl in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, genuinely looks the part of the pretty '60s coed. And much of the dialogue—almost none of which moves the story in one direction or the other—is nevertheless funny when the film needs a laugh. Gandolfini and Magaro have a great, quiet conversation in a restaurant about becoming a man, although it's gone in a hurry.
Admittedly, that's digging pretty deep to find strengths. But this kind of movie has been done so many times, and almost always in just as average a way, that there aren't any revelations to be found, much less report.
The ending of Not Fade Away deserves some discussion, though without divulging key details. It subtly explains (if you care) how David Chase made it to California (do you care?). And, in what might be a tip of the cap to his controversial conclusion to The Sopranos, the last scene of this movie makes no goddamn sense whatsoever.
Not Fade Away is, at the very least, a superb soundtrack movie—the kind we get less and less of these days because soundtracks don't sell anymore and new, unrecognizable music is always cheaper than, say, Van Morrison, James Brown, Dylan and the Sex Pistols. So maybe Chase's nostalgic bent and yours will meet somewhere on the B-side of the Stones' Beggar's Banquet, but beyond that, this is a whole lotta notta.