Set in suburban New Jersey, the film begins with a voiceover narrator who identifies herself as the sister of Douglas, an aspiring musician in a band that, like so many others, “you never heard of” because they never made it. Told in flashback, the story thereby throws away possible suspense about the band’s success or failure. Secondly, the sister interjects voiceover observations several times throughout the film, hovers on the edge of many scenes, but never materializes as a central or needed character. Further weakening the story, an episodic approach short circuits scene after scene, rushing pointlessly to the next event while viewer identification dissipates without development of action.
A labor of love for music producer Steven Van Zandt and director David Chase, it is particularly disappointing to watch momentum fail to build. Chase certainly knows how to develop characters, as proved over and over in “The Sopranos,” and he ends this film with another dynamite conclusion. To ridiculously understate the case, Van Zandt, a founder with Springsteen of the E Street Band, knows music. But though “Not Fade Away” pays homage to the songs, the families, and the social constructs of those times, the picture lacks energy, even as the rich backdrop of cultural references and watershed events unfolds at a measured pace—President Kennedy shot, the Vietnam War, the Beatles and The Rolling Stones, landmark movies like “Blow-Up,” television series including “The Twilight Zone,” and more.
As the likable Douglas, John Magaro builds a lackluster teenager into one who gains confidence but still remains too introspective to spark viewer excitement. James Gandolfini plays a stereotypically conservative, disapproving father. Molly Price is a most often silent mother submissive to the point of dreariness, and the other three band members come across as characteristically self-absorbed. Van Zandt has said he had to have them play worse than they were, their having learned fast. But “Not Fade Away” remains too kaleidoscopic and works best only to evoke our own memories.