A great movie is always about more than what it’s about. In the case of writer-director David Chase’s remarkable feature debut, the story is deceptively simple: It’s a ’60s-set tale of a two-bit rock band started by Douglas (John Magaro), a small-town New Jersey youth, in the wake of the British Invasion. Yet from frame one, the film proves immeasurably more substantive. One of the first things we see is an emergency broadcast system test pattern, its eardrum-shattering tones bleeding into the intro from the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction.” It’s a thrilling and instructive juxtaposition that establishes the narrative’s center-can’t-hold sense of cultural upheaval, reveling in a literally offbeat point of view, one that Chase cultivated on The Sopranos and expands majorly on here.
As in the best episodes of that seminal television series, Not Fade Away resembles less a straight drama than an ellipsis-heavy daydream. Chase jumps confidently through seemingly mundane occurrences in Douglas’s life—first love with his neighbor Grace (the ethereal Bella Heathcote); heated arguments with his overly practical father (James Gandolfini); and a variety of minor successes and major setbacks. Every scene plays with an in-the-moment vividness far removed from nostalgia-laden sentimentality; even the simplest interaction feels like it echoes through eternity. But it isn’t until the story reaches its fancifully abstract final passages, where cinema displaces music as Douglas’s weapon of choice, that Chase’s reverie reveals itself as a particularly exceptional exploration of how art ceases being an idle hobby and becomes an obsessive vocation.
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