There’s a moment in Not Fade Away, the new film by “The Sopranos” creator David Chase that’s screening as the opening night feature at the Virginia Film Festival, that will simultaneously cause a chill to walk up your spine and a smirk to slide across your face. That reaction is well-known to fans of “The Sopranos,” the groundbreaking series that opened up premium cable, long-form television as the most vital, rich, and satisfying vein for Hollywood’s creative class. Much of that show’s brilliance came from Chase’s ability to weave together menace and humor and take us to whole new places when it comes to sympathizing with, (and passing judgment on), our protagonists.
So when James Gandolfini, a harried, bottled-up pressure-cooker of a New Jersey dad in the early ’60s, leans out a car window and says to his teenaged son, played by John Magaro: “You show up at that restaurant without a tie and a jacket….you and me are going to tangle my friend,” it’s hard not to hear a little bit of Tony. But the reaction of Magaro’s character to his father’s threat—a gentle, rueful, almost invisible smile—shows that although we may be in New Jersey, we’re miles from the mob and the “waste management business.” The smile says that the young man realizes his father is a limited man, and he accepts that the gruff gesture is what passes for affection from the man he’s got to lock horns with in order to earn the right to break out and live the kind of life he wants to live.
Don’t let that little flash of Tony Soprano lull you into thinking that Chase and Gandolfini are haunting the old neighborhood and re-fighting old battles in Not Fade Away. The north Jersey setting and the presence of key members of “The Sopranos” creative team are about the only things that Chase’s first feature film has in common with his television classic. Although Gandolfini’s presence is vital, and his performance deep and rich and moving, the heart of this film is a coming of age story, about kids finding themselves in an era of tumultuous change. And about how music is the key to everything.
“I don’t want to brag about the ’60s,” Chase told press at the New York Film Festival in October. “But the music was great. It was our way into everything. It’s how I first learned about art, fashion, humor, film. It all came from there.”
In Not Fade Away, Chase reached back to his own teenage years, a time when he and his friends were so worked up over the music coming out of their transistor radios that they started a band “for like 15 minutes.” The plot line of kids starting a garage band in the Jersey suburbs served as a platform for Chase to dive into the nuance and texture of the seminal era of rock and roll: “I’ve been saving these songs for this movie. It really is a compilation album of some of my favorite songs, is what it comes down to.” But it also provided a challenge in getting the level of realism Chase wanted: “We had to work it out such that it would be logical, it was right chronologically, and that the band could theoretically do it with their level of expertise.”
To help make that work properly, enter a third alumnus of “The Sopranos”—Steven Van Zandt, who, besides having played strip club owner Silvio Dante on the show, was himself running the streets of Jersey a half dozen years after this film is set, forming bands and alliances and life-long friendships with guys like Southside Johnny and Bruce Springsteen. Chase enlisted Van Zandt’s garage-band cred and encyclopedic knowledge of the history of rock and roll (he programs the Sirius XM radio show “Little Steven’s Underground Garage”) to coach the actors in how to be a band, and to produce the music for the film. “We went to boot camp for like six months in my studio,” said Van Zandt. “They were amazingly dedicated and all learned how to play. They’re a band now, and could literally perform at a party tonight. And that was extraordinary to watch.”
With one key exception, which you’ll have to see the film to learn about, the music they learned to play was all real music from the period. “Part of the authenticity,” said Van Zandt, “is that most bands are cover bands for the first few years of their lives. You spend a few years learning other people’s songs. That’s how you form your identity.”