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MOVIE REVIEW: 'Not Fade Away' isn't great

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John Magaro, Jack Huston, Will Brill, and Brahm Vaccarella star in "Not Fade Away."

Not Fade Away

(R)

2 and 1/2 out of 4 stars

For those who might logically think otherwise, "Not Fade Away" is not a Buddy Holly biopic. Neither Holly nor his iconic song are ever mentioned here but he and others like him provide the spiritual springboard that inspired countless thousands of garage bands to make a lot of beautiful noise in the late '50s and early '60s.

"Not Fade Away" is the first feature film from writer/director David Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos," and boy does it ever suit his strongest sensibilities, at least for the first hour. Like "The Sopranos," the film is set in rural New Jersey and features James Gandolfini as an alpha-male head of household. Although his role is crucial to the story, Gandolfini's participation is supporting and one that also bears more than a passing resemblance to mobster Tony Soprano -- maybe too much for some tastes.

A blue-collar guy and a WWII veteran, Pat (Gandolfini) wants the same thing all parents wish for their children: a better life than their own. At the start, Pat's only son Douglas (John Magaro) is a shy, unassuming teen in love with rock 'n' roll and petrified when in the close company of the opposite sex. Noticing that girls dig musicians, Douglas procures a drum kit and hooks up with singer/guitarist Eugene (Jack Huston, grandson of John), a talent show regular and the acknowledged local heartthrob. Soon after taking on a bassist and second guitarist, they start playing local parties while smoothing out their rough edges.

When it becomes clear the band might be going somewhere, Douglas sheepishly tells Eugene what he, the rest of the band and everyone else already knows: he is a better singer and a more stable, if not better-looking front man than Eugene. With a prematurely oversized ego falsely boosting him, Eugene wigs out but eventually realizes Douglas is right and that he's neither qualified nor together enough to pursue a solo career.

The band's lofty goals are soon brought down to earth by nonfictional composer and record producer Jerry Ragovoy (Brad Garrett) who informs them that they aren't as great as they think and will only get better by playing every night for low pay in dive bars. This reality check collectively takes the wind out of the boys' sails and has the exact same effect on Chase's narrative.

In no time flat, the movie goes from sharp, crackling and winsome to dull, rote and uninvolving. Douglas starts behaving like Eugene, picks the wrong fights with Pat, starts drifting away from his model-beautiful girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote) and discovers drugs. In other words, it becomes just another rock 'n' roll semi-burnout story but with less interesting characters. Chase avoids most of the stereotype rock extremes and in the process robs his story of the living-on-the-fringe flourishes that are key to this type of movie. Watching an average local band peak early and quickly fade into obscurity may lend the film an air of authenticity but it makes for sub-par drama.

A large portion of what made "The Sopranos" so memorably superior, music and set designs, are employed to magnificent effect here. The song selections by Chase and musical supervisor Steve Van Zant (a "Sopranos" cast member and guitarist in Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band) are eclectic and never less than outstanding. Half of the two dozen-plus songs are covers credited to the Twylight Zones and the remainder mostly obscure album tracks by the likes of Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Nancy Sinatra, the Rascals, the Left Banke and a handful of blues pioneers.

Mixing gritty urban kitsch with retro art-deco, the sets and costumes are painstakingly detailed and deadly accurate. Chase's technical crews are so good at what they do that we often find ourselves in awe with the sound and vision stuff and sometimes regard the dialogue as a throwaway afterthought. This is wonderful for sticklers of period detail but not so much for those craving an engrossing, start-to-finish story. "Not Fade Away" isn't great or even very good but it looks and sounds splendid. (Paramount)