Growing up in the 60s was exciting and dangerous. It was acid and Vietnam and terrible clothes and hair. It was the dawn of Aquarius and the Tibetan Book of the Dead, boys going over, boys coming home in boxes.
We all know that, and we didn’t need David Chase (“The Sopranos”) to show us. But he needed to, and here is what seems to be his life story, cliched and sad and drawn out, albeit well told with accompanying music that will awaken dreams in you thought long dead.
Our hero, young Douglas, Chase’s alter ego, (a very good newcomer, John Magaro) is a wanna-be drummer with fellow wanna-be rock and rollers, only a few of the hundreds of wanna-be garage thumpers, who dotted the Jersey coast in the early days of that era.
But Doug is a short pre-Pacino Italian with a prominent nose and Dylan shock of hair, who feels one down amongst the slicker jocks and wealthier kids at his school.
“I’ve got a skinny physique and a scuzzy complexion,” he moans. Of course that may have been a downer then, but we now live in the age of “scuzzy” geek heroes who own the Internet, the universe and us.
But when new black and white television brings videos of similar outliers like Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr to Jersey, Doug takes heart and joins up with friends to form a rock band. But as it was at that time, kids dwelled with parents who believed in the sainthood of Tony Bennet and genuflected to Frank Sinatra. To them, half asleep in their barcaloungers, the thought of this new clash of onerous cymbals, to paraphrase Yeat’s poem, was “a discordant beast slouching towards Bethlehem.”
“Not Fade Away” gives us the usual tapestry of 60’s vignettes: locker room romances, red-and-green-lighted family basement smoke and beer parties, flourishing and busted romances and friendships and the in house rock and roll of familial joys and heart breaks. Remember? Of course you do. You were either them or the parents.
When high school is over and the movie moves to college, Douglas comes home to the family war with a bigger head of unruly hair, a shabby peacoat and Cuban heels. In his packet of surprises are the deeper, stronger convictions that wired up his generation around the Vietnam war.
None of this went down easily with Doug’s dad (the very welcome James Gandolphini.) Gandolfini etches a strong, working class, impatient and hard-headed dad who moves the story towards the inevitable conflicts.
Gandolphini’s dad is old-school third-generation union Jersey Italian, and has firm ideas about his America. The clash of generations bounces in and out of the house, around the music buddies and the groupie girlfriends.
We meet Grace (a lovely Bella Heathcote) who comes from a wealthy family that has its own problems. Graces’s big sister takes on drug problems and winds up being committed. Grace and Doug spar back and forth as they grow slowly up into college life. The sub plots involve the troubled relationships of the band members, (Brahm Vaccarella, Will Brill, Gregory Perri and Jack Huston, John Huston’s a very talented grandson from “Boardwalk Empire.”)
The film is cutely narrated by Doug’s little sister (Meg Guzulescu) who, in a bare windy Hollywood street epilogue, does a jazz dance in the shadow of Grauman’s Chinese Theater.
Writer-director Chase, who created and sustained a classic picture of Italian American mob life in the great “Sopranos,” falls a bit short here by edging too close to cliché in some of the scenes involving both the families. Over all though, the script has many touching moments, especially those between father and son.
Fans of the music of the era will be happy with the choices included in the score. It was put together by Bruce Springfield’s E Street regular and “Soprano” actor, musician Steve Van Zandt. Numbers include the Rascal’s “I Ain’t Gonna Eat Out My Heart” and the classic surfer “Pipeline.” Some of you will be touched, perhaps even brought to tears. Younger viewers will shrug and simply say, “What was Vietnam?”
J.P. Devine is a former stage and screen actor.