Not Fade Away and the Limits of Nostalgia

Not Fade Away and the Limits of Nostalgia January 14, 2013

A review of David Chase’s Not Fade Away

By Christian Hamaker

As a young boy, radio and records were my best friends.

We lived in a split-level home inBurke,Va.—not the bustling Fairfax Country suburb of today, but a new development in the early 1970s. A 7-Eleven, a Peoples Drug store and High’s convenience store were the neighborhood retail highlights. A Woolco discount department store housed the neighborhood record shop, where I purchased my first 45 rpm record at age 8 (“Because the Night” by Patti Smith; don’t ask why) and built my collection of vinyl.

Growing up without a lot of disposable income meant not a lot of record purchases. To supplement, I became an avid radio listener of rock at a young age. That’s what happens, I suppose, when you have an older brother who likes rock and roll, and a close friend who also liked rock (and who, not coincidentally, had an older brother who was into rock, and whose tastes clearly influenced his own).

My rock education began in grade school, with the Beatles, the Kinks and the Rolling Stones. In those days, there was no “Classic Rock” radio format. Those bands and their music were mainstays of the Album Oriented Rock (AOR) format played by stations like WAVA and DC-101. (It wasn’t until I was in junior high that WCXR ushered in the Classic Rock format at 105.9 FM.)

I eschewed the “new” music of New Wave during my youth, adhering to the purist sound of guitar-based rock music. Eventually, I moved on from my elementary school fixation on a few rock bands to hard rock and metal, although not the heaviest stuff. That lasted through high school, when acoustic singer-songwriters became my next, entirely unexpected, musical infatuation.

But my nostalgia for Classic Rock remains. I still love the bluesy rock of the Rolling Stones, the driving anthems of the Kinks and the melodies of the Beatles.

That’s why I couldn’t wait to see David Chase’s Not Fade Away, a tribute to the rock culture of my youth. Billed as “a love letter to the music of the Sixties,” Not Fade Away is the story of a band that finds fleeting fame. It should have been right in my nostalgic sweet spot.

David Chase, who created The Sopranos, tells the story of Douglas, a drummer who joins a rock band and who eventually finds that vocals are more his strong suit. That creates tension with the band’s other singer, but it brings affection and attention from the one particular female in Douglas’ life, Grace (Bella Heathcote).

Douglas’ new identity also raises hackles among his family, chiefly his father (James Gandolfini). There’s a family meal scene where divisions between father and son are laid out, but anyone who’s seen The Wonder Years or The Graduate will find the conflicts about the Vietnam War and Douglas’ professional ambitions rote.

For much of the movie, Chase allows the musical performances to define the movie. Not Fade Away shows us a band trying to “make it” and almost succeeding. But ultimately, it’s not to be, which isn’t a surprise given that most bands don’t “make it” these days, and they didn’t make it then.

Overall, the film didn’t work for me despite its pretty good music and performances. But the story’s more important element is its values, and it’s here where Not Fade Away is at its dimmest.

We all remember the days when we came into our own, when we decided that what we thought mattered most in life didn’t have to be the same as what our parents valued most in their lives. But did our parents ever embrace our new way of seeing things? Not in my experience. Usually, they recognized youthful foolishness, and usually, they were right.

Not so in Not Fade Away, wherein a rebellious boy’s father finds inspiration in his son’s anti-authoritarian streak, rather than the boy learning anything constructive from his elders. That’s the countercultural gospel—the young know better than the old. But that’s a lie for the most part, and anyone who’s grown past their school years knows it.

Our culture has reaped the whirlwind of 1960s counterculture excess, even though the upheavals of that era weren’t all bad. Yet for every step of progress—and there has been progress—there have also been consequences, sometimes dire. Are we really to look back on the embrace of “sex, drugs, and rock and roll” as a great thing? We don’t need to condemn the Sixties outright, but at this point in time, do we really need to celebrate that era the way Not Fade Away wants to celebrate it?

Not Fade Away seems to think the worst part of the 1960s was the lack of success for some aspiring rockers, and that the best part was the older generation’s recognition of the their kids’ value systems. That’s sad. Although the adults of that time had their shortcomings—and Gandolfini’s character is forced to grapple with his own failings—they also recognized that the pursuit of self fulfillment wasn’t the answer to every problem.

Chase can’t abide that tension—most movies can’t—so he resolves it by having the older generation follow the lead of the younger in the realm of romance and sex. Nevermind what those beliefs and values led to in the 1970s and 1980s.

Chase wants us to grow wistful and nostalgic as we watch the indulgence on display in Not Fade Away. I might have my own nostalgia for the music of the era of Not Fade Away, but I’m no fool. I’m also not a strict traditionalist when it comes to “old ways” versus the new. Instead, I like to think I’m a realist about the consequences—pro and con—of social development. In the end, my trust is not on cultural trends—musical, sexual or otherwise. My hope is based on eternal truths, and that’s something very few movies capture.

Not Fade Away doesn’t aspire to tell eternal truths, but its misplaced nostalgia for youthful pursuits—and its condescension toward the values of previous generations—makes for a pointless film. The music’s not bad in spots. But if you want good Classic Rock, you don’t need to go to the movies—just turn on your radio.

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