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Paramount Vantage
John Magaro stars in “Not Fade Away,” a drama set in the 1960s. The film opens today in local theaters.
movie review

Writer-director saves string of clichés

‘Not Fade Away’

Like a lot of the early rock ’n’ roll music it so shamelessly, exuberantly celebrates, the 1960s-set drama “Not Fade Away” is filled with familiar riffs. In any other context, they would be called clichés: the aspiring teenage drummer whose father just doesn’t understand him; the personal and professional rivalries among band members; the romance between a working-class boy and his wealthy dream girl. There’s even a (thankfully non-tragic) motorcycle accident.

But in writer-director David Chase’s heartfelt delivery, this same old tune somehow comes out sounding fresh.

A loosely autobiographical love song celebrating the garage bands of the filmmaker’s youth, “Not Fade Away” makes up in soul what it lacks in originality. Following the same rough path that took Chase from suburban New Jersey – where the future creator of “The Sopranos” himself once nurtured adolescent dreams of rock stardom – to film school in California, the film is the story of Doug Damiano (John Magaro), a self-described loser with the ladies who attempts to rise above his “skinny physique and skuzzy complexion” by emulating Mick Jagger and others.

In the process of imitation, he somehow discovers himself.

It doesn’t take long for Doug, the drummer of his friend Gene’s cover band, to move from behind the drum kit to the microphone. This happens when it becomes obvious that Doug can sing and write songs better than Gene (Jack Huston) can. That talent also gets our hero noticed by the pretty, popular Grace (Bella Heathcote), the daughter of a Madison Avenue adman (Christopher McDonald).

Doug and Grace’s relationship follows a tried-and-true arc, offering no fresh insights about love. Can the pimply-faced son of a grouchy, blue-collar meathead who disapproves of his son’s long hair and newly loose lifestyle find happiness with an upper-crusty prom princess whose own father is also a jerk?

Maybe, but not before a petty falling out or two.

There’s nothing especially interesting about Doug and Grace’s on-again, off-again romance, but it does give the story the instantly recognizable trajectory of a three-minute chart-topper. There’s a verse-chorus-verse structure to “Not Fade Away” that’s comfortable, if conventional.

As Doug’s dad, James Gandolfini brings little to a role we’ve also seen a thousand times before. Fortunately, the part is small, with the contentious father-son dynamic taking a back seat to the theme of Doug’s love of music.

Chase clearly remains infatuated with the sound he fell in love with as a kid. Magaro – an appealing combination of band nerd and counterculture hipster – conveys wide-eyed infatuation and wonky knowledge of songcraft in equal measure. To his credit, Magaro actually makes you believe in the kind of person who stands outside a music store drooling over instruments, which up to now I thought only existed in movies.

Despite echoes of other movies, “Not Fade Away” builds a nice, off-kilter rhythm, and Chase shows real style. More than once, the director cuts to close-up shots of Doug’s ear, as if to underscore the necessity of listening to the story as much as looking at it.

It’s a film that works through sound, even more than through pictures.

In the end, Chase’s film concludes with a delightfully weird, almost surreal fade out, set on the midnight streets of Hollywood to the Sex Pistols’ cover of Jonathan Richman classic “Roadrunner.” Doug has moved to Los Angeles to pursue film studies when suddenly his little sister (Meg Guzulescu) – who has been narrating the film, almost incidentally – appears out of nowhere to look squarely into the camera and tell us that America’s two greatest contributions to world culture are the atom bomb and rock-and-roll.

As she begins dancing, almost in slow motion, in the middle of the street, her point – Chase’s point, that a great pop song can irrevocably change everything – seems to have a crazy yet convincing logic.

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