A Sopranos Prequel, Sort Of: Not Fade Away 

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Not Fade Away
Directed by David Chase

Early in David Chase's 1960s-set feature, Doug (John Magaro) discovers a simple truth of rock n' roll: when he sings in a band, he becomes the guy he poses as at parties. Doug is slight and a little awkward ("skinny physique, scummy complexion"), playing drums at high-school parties with his buddies Wells (Will Brill) and Eugene (Jack Huston), who fancies himself a singer and a guitarist. In the movie's best sequence, Chase cuts back and forth between their band assembling themselves, adding members and instruments, and a TV performance of the song they cover, the fans and bands feeding off each other's energy without ever meeting.

But back to Doug's discovery: he is not a drummer. He is a singer, and maybe a songwriter. At very least, he's a better singer and songwriter than Eugene, who does not take this news well. Nor does Pat (James Gandolfini), Doug's father, take well the news that he has dropped out of college to pursue music full-time. But despite the shot of confidence Doug gets from his singing voice and the accompanying attentions of Grace (Bella Heathcoat), his band never quite takes off.

Instead, Doug gets stuck in a pre-Springsteen New Jersey, full of dreams but not much know-how. Getting signed to a major label is such a fresh idea that it becomes abstract; there's hardly anyone to show the boys how to get it together. As Doug's non-career stagnates, Not Fade Away becomes That Thing You Do! without that first kiss of success—the band doesn't even, as the Mountain Goats put it, settle on a name; they barely muster up any contenders for one. Like That Thing You Do!, the early scenes of musical discovery are the best, but by taking good luck out of the equation, Not Fade Away limits itself to chronicling listless disappointment.

For this limitation to work, the characters would have to come alive in ways Chase's film doesn't allow them to. The Sopranos creator's ear for dialogue remains intact, but so do his big-canvas instincts. A feature film shouldn't be too small to capture the lives of teenagers in the 60s, but Not Fade Away feels simultaneously truncated and overlong, like an extended TV pilot that starts prepping for cancellation halfway through. The stop/go/skip-ahead chronology sets the movie seemingly perpetual autumn, with a few truly puzzling jump-cuts where seasons change for just a scene or two. Television isn't the only medium that might've been a better fit: Chase also throws in the novelistic conceit of seeing the action through the eyes of Doug's little sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), which is distracting and pointless onscreen, given that it amounts only to some awkward narration and obligatory reaction shots (at least until the movie concentrates almost exclusively on events Evelyn would not have witnessed or even heard much about).

Not Fade Away has obviously been assembled with love for the era: it doesn't skimp on music clearances (the soundtrack includes the Beatles, the Stones, and Dylan), and nails the correct level of promise in Doug's band (even if they sound to my ears a little newer than the mid-60s—more like 70s power-pop). But it meanders through nicely observed moments on the way to nowhere in particular. In a behind-the-scenes way, it feels like a Sopranos prequel: self-portrait of an artist who hasn't quite found his way.

Opens December 21

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