David Chase, best known for creating the HBO juggernaut The Sopranos, has returned to the streets of New Jersey in his first feature film, Not Fade Away. In the great pantheon of rock 'n roll biopics, both historical and fictional, the story has always been about the Rolling Stones and Beatles of the world - the bands who made it. But in Not Fade Away, director Chase attempts to do something few filmmakers ever do, creating a love letter to rock music by fixing his gaze on the innumerable garage bands with dreams of superstardom who never quite made it past their proverbial front lawns.
The film, set at the start of the '60s and spanning several years, stars charismatic actor John Magaro as an initially nerdy teen named Doug who after discovering rock grows his hair long, starts wearing Cuban heels, joins a band and eventually sparks up a romance with a beautiful rich girl named Grace (Bella Heathcote) who he's been in love with since his freshman year of high school. Along the way he clashes with his bigoted, overbearing father (James Gandolfini) and his bandmates, played by Will Brill and Boardwalk Empire star Jack Huston.
History forms a hazy backdrop to the goings-on in Doug's life - JFK is assassinated, the Vietnam War begins, Dr Martin Luther King is shot and killed in Tennessee. But the driving force of the movie is most definitely the music, which Chase and music supervisor Steven Van Zandt of The E Street Band conceived of as a sort of compilation of the director's favourite songs - tracks like 'Me and the Devil Blues' by Robert Johnson, 'Bali Ha'i' from the musical South Pacific, and 'Time Is On My Side' as sung by the Rolling Stones. Each song is tucked and folded into the film with deliberate care, anchoring a story that has a tendency to fly off on tangents and get caught up in its own reverence for the period.
Not Fade Away is a passionate movie, perhaps a little self-indulgent. Ultimately, the narrative is too overwhelmed by all that it wants to say. Chase described the story as being about "the conflict between freedom and security". It's a struggle Chase must have confronted in the making of the film, which constantly toes the line between wild visual and narrative abandon and the safe, formulaic tropes that usually go into coming-of-age tales. And yet despite its lack of focus, Not Fade Away still manages to capture something less wistful and more joyful than nostalgia - the essence of an era through its music.