NEW YORK — It was either serendipity or programming genius that the first NYFF press screening of David Chase’s “Not Fade Away” was held today on the 50th anniversary of a seminal moment in the history of rock and roll: the release of the Beatles’ first single, “Love Me Do.” The fab four’s burst onto the scene is in fact one of the moments depicted in Chase’s directorial debut that sends its protagonists on a journey of self-discovery and artistic awakening.
It’s an era Chase captures with joy and passion in a film both funny and, at times, profound. Indeed, the theme of the film, Chase said in a post-screening press conference, is the conflict between security and freedom. “Human beings are always in that conflict of, ‘I want to be part of something, I want to be babied, I want to be taken care of’ and ‘I also want to tell everybody to go fuck yourself and I’m free and I want to do what I want and I’m just my own person,” he said. “That’s one of the things that launched the movie in my mind.”
John Magaro stars as a boomer generation New Jersey native making his way through love, sex, drugs and, yes, rock and roll in the early-to-mid 1960s. He forms a band with a few friends and experiences the ups and downs inherent in that relationship, made all the more authentic with the participation of E Street Band guitarist Steve Van Zandt as a producer. It’s the rise and fall of a band you never heard of, one that could probably stand in for countless others across the country at that time, including Chase’s own cardboard-boxes-as-drumset crew.
Van Zandt’s participation was a boon, particularly for a group of actors with no experience as musicians. The band formed in the film plays through a few years of covers, which Van Zandt said was important for the authenticity of the time, before developing their own original song toward the end of the film.
“Most of the bands, Beatles, Stones, you name it, E Street Band, spent a few years doing other people’s songs…when they should be, actually,” he said. “These days, not so much, and it’s actually a bad thing. That’s how you form your identity and that’s how you learn to write songs, from analyzing those existing songs and absorbing them, and that’s how you have standards. So we wanted to be very authentic about that stuff.”
The “original” song, however, won’t be making the awards rounds. It’s actually “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” which Van Zandt developed for another project.
But while Chase had his hand at a band in his youth, the film isn’t autobiographical, he insisted. Though it’s certainly personal. “I always felt that I was very lucky to be that age at that time,” he said. “And music was, at that time, a way into everything. That’s where I first learned about art, poetry, fashion, humor, film, it all came from there. Rock and roll was my first glimpse of, ‘Oh, that’s art. Maybe I could do that.'”
Magaro’s character, who sports a Bob Dylan look throughout most of the film (much to the chagrin of his father, played by James Gandolfini), makes mention a few times of wanting to head west and learn film. He talks about an interest in the juxtaposition of music and imagery, and that’s something Chase reiterated about himself, that one of his favorite things about working on “The Sopranos” was putting picture and sound together. “Not Fade Away,” he said, is therefore just a compilation album of his favorite songs.
But the moment was a fleeting one, too, and however strongly identifying it may have been for the country, it has been lost along the way.
“Rolling Stone was a magazine that was formed right as this movie was ending,” Chase said. “It was a rock and roll magazine but everything, politics, was filtered through that lens. And I don’t think it is anymore…The revolution was bought out. Nike and those people said, ‘We’ll take it and use it to sell shoes.’ And they did. So that was very much in my mind.”
That’s why the film clicked so much, for me anyway. It’s a fun romp in one respect, but it’s also deeply concerned with generational ideas and a life lived free versus a life lived in regret. There is a beautiful moment vis a vis the latter involving Gandolfini toward the film’s end that really sells the notion.
The film is also paced at a clip, the result of a larger version that Chase has been honing down for a number of months now. The final assemblage is a mostly crisp and tight offering that nevertheless sports a wild side, the director finding interesting ways to use his camera (on a cymbal, in the reflection of a sheered-off side-view mirror) but also delicately finding intimacy with his characters (a number of close-ups, particularly on Magaro and co-star Bella Heathcote as they watch “Touch of Evil” together, really stuck out as unique).
More importantly, though, is the fact that, while that moment in music history was fleeting, it’s representative of something universal. It says something about inspiration and about artistic passion, and that is why that music will be immortal. Immortality is, after all, what every artist is truly striving for, whatever the medium.
“Not Fade Away” premieres tomorrow night at the Alice Tully Hall as the Centerpiece selection of the New York Film Festival. It opens December 21 in limited release.