We experience our lives as constant stream. We remember our lives as turning points. These turning points weren’t necessarily the most dramatic moments, but they were emblematic. More than other moments, this one was special. David Chase, a storyteller who has consistently eschewed traditional narrative structure, looks into the past to see snapshots of lives in his debut feature film, Not Fade Away. These snapshots aren’t merely of good times and bad times, but acts of creation and destruction set against a backdrop of a world on the brink of survival. Anchored by strong performances, Not Fade Away manages to break past the clichés of its settings to find compelling characters. However, Chase’s desire to escape a traditional narrative structure keeps us at an emotional distance.
In 1964, high-schooler Doug (John Magaro) and his friends attempt to form a rock band. Doug has eyes for Grace (Bella Heathcote), but she’s into dating jocks. At home, Doug has a terse relationship with his father, Pat (James Gandolfini), but their relationship is amicable enough. And then we jump forward a year. Doug is now in college, his hair has grown long, he’s against the war, and his politics don’t agree with Pat. Meanwhile, Doug and Grace begin to develop a romantic relationship. The film continues to jump forward with new changes, and almost all of them are along the lines of the destruction and restoration of relationships. The band stays alive, but excises one its members. Doug and Grace pull apart. Relationships cycle, develop, change, grow, and die.
Not Fade Away takes a little bit to find a groove and push into its own story. At the outset, the film reminds us that the 1960s were a very important time, as if any baby boomer would ever let us forget something so painfully obvious. But once Chase pulls back from the major events surrounding the characters, their lives no longer feel small. Instead, it feels intimate as we peer in on their hopes, dreams, fears, anger, and the other emotions that can be condensed into the key moments the film takes us through.
Rather than provide dates, Chase trusts his audience to follow the clues he leaves to note the passage of time. We see different hairstyles, locations, holiday settings, and other imagery to signify the passage of time without a direct reminder that time has passed. It’s a smart move that helps us identify with the characters’ progression even though we’re not in their time period. When we look back on our lives, we don’t remember the exact date when we broke up with our girlfriend, but we remember the season of the year, the place, and the personal details rather than the objective ones.
While the approach suits the story Chase wishes to tell, his style constantly forces the audience to take a step back and readjust before coming back into the story. It’s not simply a matter of requiring an active viewing experience. It’s the form pushing away the power of the story. I commend Chase on his consistent attempts to reevaluate narrative, but he runs into the same problem in Not Fade Away that he had in The Sopranos. For example, the ending of The Sopranos is one of TV’s most memorable moments. But we don’t remember the emotional impact of that scene. We remember that it cut to black and then dove into what that meant thematically. It was intellectually rich exercise, but an emotionally unrewarding one.
But also like The Sopranos, Chase has a rich cast that attempts to carry the emotional weight of the story. While the interactions between Douglas and Pat feel a bit cliché (the old-fashioned father doesn’t like his son’s rebellion), the romance between Douglas and Grace feels lived-in. It’s a relationship that is tested repeatedly and the result plays with an emotional honesty. The characters are made richer by having separate lives and conflicts rather than simply being seen through Douglas’ point-of-view. All lives come with turning points, and the world does not revolve around one person even if that’s how we perceive it.
Your appreciation of Not Fade Away may vary based on your appreciation of The Sopranos. For me, The Sopranos was a show I respected, but never loved. It was a world filled with cynical, bitter, and static characters who inhabited a world I found uninteresting. Not Fade Away falls into the same form-over-function narrative problems, but it feels like a more dynamic environment. The range of emotions feels wider, the conflicts feel less staged, and while it never completely connects, Not Fade Away is a thoughtful approach to the big moments in our little lives.