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Not Fade Away – David Chase

The Sopranos creator’s bygone coming-of-age film starring James Gandolfini

We reflect on David Chase’s directorial debut Not Fade Away – a 2012 film about a college drop-out who sets out to be a rock star –ahead of Sopranos prequel The Many Saints of Newark

The Sopranos wasn’t meant to be a TV series. David Chase, the HBO show’s creator, originally pitched the concept as a movie. Robert De Niro would play a gangster in therapy, Anne Bancroft the controlling mother who plots his death; in the final act, De Niro would, as revenge, march to the nursing home and murder Bancroft. The studios passed. Instead, The Sopranos ran for 86 episodes across six seasons, comprising a cinematic language in its dream sequences, off-kilter pacing, and occasional talking fish. The divisive ending in 2007 – the screen cutting to black – was what you’d expect from an Antonioni flick at a repertory theatre, not a mainstream programme airing on Sundays at 9pm.

As far back as Chase could remember, though, he wanted to be a filmmaker. “They were like little movies, which is what I was always trying to do: a little movie every week,” he told the New York Times in 2019, adding, “All I wanted to do was get as close to cinema as I could.” Which explains the popularity of The Sopranos during the pandemic: it’s like bingeing 86 films when cinemas are closed; it’s the joy of a Marvel marathon, but without having to suffer through really anodyne Marvel films. All of which makes me wonder: why aren’t we using the downtime to revisit Chase’s other cinematic creation with James Gandolfini?

In 2012, Chase’s cinephile dreams finally came true with his debut feature, Not Fade Away. Written and directed by Chase, the audacious coming-of-age movie stretches from 1962 to 1968, focusing on teenagers whose only flirtations with criminality involve marijuana. Yet despite the differences, Sopranos fans would find as much, if not more, to admire in Not Fade Away. The philosophical dialogue and three-dimensional characters are recognisably from Chase’s brain, the authentically written youths prove AJ and Meadow weren’t flukes, and Gandolfini even has a supporting role as a toxic father with a vulnerable core.

In fact, one scene in Not Fade Away – if not the title itself – seems to comment on how The Sopranos’ open-ended finale should be interpreted. Two teens, Douglas (John Magaro) and Grace (Bella Heathcote), watch Antonioni’s Blow-Up in a cinema. Douglas comments, “What kind of movie is this? Nothing happens. And there’s no orchestra to tell you, like, ‘Watch out, this guy’s gonna get killed.’” Grace responds, “I think the trees are the music.”

Whereas The Sopranos was inspired by Chase’s relationship with his mother, Not Fade Away loosely drew from his childhood ambitions to be a rock star. Douglas, the Chase stand-in, is a 16-year-old rebelling against his parents in New Jersey. Upon realising that the girls at school fancy musicians, Douglas immediately purchases a drum kit and joins a band, The Twylight Zones. From there, the plot revolves around a feuding rock group, a feuding family, and a feuding couple with separate artistic ambitions. It’s the creator of The Sopranos doing his own Mad Men.

In Douglas, you have a protagonist whose rock ‘n’ roll obsessions are intoxicating and obnoxious at the right moments; while singing back-up vocals behind the drum kit, the scruffy antihero ponders how he can usurp the frontman and develops delusions of grandeur. Grace, Douglas’s girlfriend, is a wannabe filmmaker who’s underestimated by the men in her life; her hippie sister, Joy (Dominique McElligott), is sent to a mental hospital against her wishes. At home, Douglas’s father, Pat (Gandolfini), is a bully who softens when he develops cancer. The period details are so specific that background objects carry dramatic weight, while the novelistic structure hints at further storylines begging to be explored. In truth, you half-wish Not Fade Away was really a two-hour pilot for a long-running series.

As it is, Not Fade Away cost $20 million to make and earned only $600,000 at the box-office. The soundtrack rights alone cost $2.5 million – a figure more than quadrupling the ticket sales. However, the music cues are as electrifying as they were in The Sopranos and its strip club. The core romance isn’t between Douglas and Grace; it’s the love emitted by youths discovering the music they’ll adore for the rest of their life. In a wordless sequence, Grace watches the Rolling Stones perform on TV; as Mick Jagger swings his hips, Grace stares, sucking on a cigarette, barely blinking, as if something is awakening inside her.

To Chase’s credit, he isn’t simply splashing the cash on whatever was on his iPod at the time. The soundtrack selection examines how 60s rock ‘n’ roll arguably whitewashed the sounds of Black artists who preceded them. Songs by Bo Diddley, Lead Belly, and James Brown are juxtaposed with The Beatles and Bob Dylan. “How come the English knew all about the blues and we didn’t?” Douglas laments while rifling through vinyl records. “Yet it’s been right here under our nose the whole time?”

In the role of musical supervisor, Steven Van Zandt, who played Silvio on The Sopranos, composed original songs for The Twylight Zones. Intentional or not, the band’s output is pitched to a tee: decent enough to impress friends and family, but lacking that killer spark or whatever Mick Jagger swung in his hips to succeed. Still, the live performances are hugely enjoyable. The band’s dynamics feel spontaneous and character-driven, right down to Douglas’s miscues when an attractive girl makes eye contact, and tensions arise whenever a power chord or a drum beat is flubbed.

Chase, really, should shoot a concert movie when the pandemic is over. In a 2009 draft of the script, he wrote: “From here on, whenever they play, it will be shown cinematically, the tactile feel of these instruments… the surprise musical payoffs, the effort just to stay on beat, the failure, sometimes, to fully coalesce – and sometimes, the miracle of miracles, RIDING A GROOVE. The goal is to be in the musician’s POV, not solely in the audience’s POV of them.”

Even in the non-band moments, Not Fade Away possesses a rich, swirling musicality in its editing. Scenes tend to be short and punchy, often bearing little relevance to the plot, and they unfold like snapshots within one’s memory. In the script, several conversations actually appear in a different order – as if Chase compiled the film as a visual mixtape with scenes instead of songs. And just as Tony Soprano confused fantasy with reality, Douglas experiences ominous, sci-fi visions that amp up the film’s overall dreaminess and hypnotic powers.

The thing is, Tony Soprano-esque incidents are littered throughout Not Fade Away. There’s Gandolfini’s tough-guy character privately sobbing to South Pacific, then there’s the misogynistic outburst when Douglas learns of Grace’s sexual history. As both projects originated from Chase’s personal reminiscences, Not Fade Away often resembles what you’d imagine a Sopranos prequel would look like. Tellingly, the actual upcoming Sopranos prequel – a Chase-written, Alan Taylor-directed movie called The Many Saints of Newark, due out later this year in cinemas and, ironically, HBO Max – also takes place in 60s New Jersey, no doubt sharing several of the same cultural signifiers.

Funnily enough, the script for Not Fade Away concludes with Douglas moving to LA and shooting a gangster film – a slightly on-the-nose, autobiographical touch. In the finished movie, Douglas still flies to California but the final scene is even more elusive and perplexing than the closing seconds of The Sopranos. Douglas staggers onto a street, at night, lost in a daze, attempting to hitchhike and eventually disappears from the frame.

Then Evelyn, Douglas’s little sister, a character who barely speaks the entire film and lives on the other side of the country, strolls onto the screen and breaks the fourth wall, claiming America gave the world two inventions of enormous power: nuclear weapons and rock ‘n’ roll. “Which one is going to win out in the end?” she asks the viewer, before dancing on an empty, moonlit street to the yet-to-be-released punk sounds of The Sex Pistols. The credits immediately switch to black-and-white footage of Joey Dee and The Starlighters doing “The Peppermint Twist” on 1961 television. What does it mean? Is this a musical history lesson? Like the existential mystery over Tony Soprano’s fate, it’s a multi-layered question mark with multi-layered answers, the kind that keeps you up at 3am. Time is circular. Art will never die. The trees are the music.

The Many Saints of Newark is due later this year in cinemas and HBO Max