Caveat lector: This isn’t really a proper movie review. I don’t know much about movies, and wouldn’t begin to try to critique a film from an artistic standpoint – I think you have to really understand a genre in order to do that. For a good example of a proper film review, I liked Leonard Maltin’s. This is pretty much just my own personal reaction to the movie; very personal, as you will see by the end.
Given that David Chase’s coming-of-age film “Not Fade Away” is basically a love letter to rock & roll, it won’t surprise anyone that I liked it. Okay, I think it had some issues with pacing – there are times when scenes blow by quickly and I wasn’t really sure whether I had maybe missed something. There were some subplots that were interesting but never got fleshed out – the bit about Grace‘s hippie sister, for example. I was disappointed that the female characters were generally pretty two-dimensional, especially Grace herself; she’s just the pretty but slightly confused girlfriend, and though she’s on screen a lot, we never really get to know what makes her tick. And while I loved the last three minutes or so, the final arc towards the ending (the L.A. part) seemed a little muddled and out-of-place to me.
But you know what, I still loved this movie. I loved it a lot. The soundtrack, as one would expect given the involvement of Steven Van Zandt, is absolutely killer. The Van Zandt original featured in the film, “The St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” is catchy as hell and just a great song. (You can read my review of the soundtrack album over at Blogness.) The scenes where the band is learning to play are beautiful; the one where they’re working out “Bo Diddley” in particular made me want to run out of the theater and go start a band. There’s a hilarious cameo by Jay Weinberg (son of E Street drummer Max Weinberg, and until recently the drummer for punk band Against Me) as a drummer entirely ill-suited for the band he’s playing with; for the benefit of those who get it I will mutter here “No junior Ginger Bakers.” The acting is generally very good, especially leading man John Magaro, of whom I bet we will be seeing a lot more, as well as Meg Guzulescu who plays his sister – a tiny role, but she really shines. Anyone who grew up in the sixties will appreciate the attention to authenticity and detail throughout the film; it felt absolutely real. And I dare you not to walk out of the theater humming and/or dancing.
But mostly, and this really isn’t that much of a spoiler, I love that “Not Fade Away” isn’t a success story. It would have been easy to make a movie about a band that makes it big, or for that matter about one that crashes & burns dramatically. But as the lead character’s younger sister says at the beginning of the movie, this band is like most bands – you never heard of them. Does this mean this is a film about failure? No. The message of the film, to me, is that following your dream and doing what you love is not wasted time, regardless of whether you find “success” or “failure” or something in between. More specifically, the movie posits rock & roll as something worth pursuing and holding on to and in fact as the greatest thing American culture has produced.* You can argue about that latter point, but you can’t argue that the movie and its characters come most alive when they are playing or listening to the music they love. And that has nothing to do with recording contracts, commercial success, or anything else.
As the daughter of a musician who made a modest (very modest) living for a while playing in your basic hotel-lounge cover band, and as someone who took guitar lessons for a while and came close enough to not sucking at it to have some pretty daydreams, I have a complicated relationship with the idea of musical “success.” When you spend hours and hours practicing your craft and you never have the kind of success you daydream about, have you wasted all that time and effort?
I think about that a lot, actually. When my dad got a “real job” teaching psychology at a university and moved us to Indiana, he pretty much stopped playing music. He probably could have found some guys to play with on weekends for fun. But having been good enough to play professionally, I think he recognized that no longer practicing regularly meant that his chops deteriorated quickly, and I think it was hard for him to enjoy playing if he didn’t have the facility with it that he used to have. So he stopped. Like him, I have enough of an ear to hear that when I pick up the guitar to bash around on it now, I kind of suck. I was never a professional-level musician but I was coffeehouse-level good once, and now I can’t even play that well. It’s hard for me to do things just for kicks, without wanting to be good at them. And so, mostly, I don’t play.
And what “Not Fade Away” tells me is, fuck that shit, just play. If it makes you feel alive, it doesn’t much matter if you suck or if you’re good enough to get a record contract. Being good enough to get a contract doesn’t mean you’re going to end up famous anyway. Like all those other bands you’ve never heard of, you probably won’t. You may find yourself in a strange city living a life entirely different from the life you were dreaming of, but on some street corner you might hear music and remember what it feels like to be alive again. And that, this movie says, that is what matters.
So if you’ll excuse me, I have a guitar that needs my attention now. Rock on.
*At the very end of the movie Evelyn, younger sister of main character Douglas, turns to the camera and says “I had to write a term paper, and I wrote about how America has given the world two inventions of enormous power. One is nuclear weapons. The other is rock & roll. Which one is going to win out in the end?” The question is left verbally unanswered, but Evelyn begins dancing in the middle of the deserted street, a graceful little go-go sequence that celebrates youth, rock & roll, and life itself. I would argue that her dancing answers the question pretty definitively. Rock & roll wins out – if we let it.