Yes, fade away

Gandolfini, not quite saving “Not Fade Away”

Not Fade Away, written and directed by David Chase, is a recently released rock ‘n’ roll movie set during the heyday of Beatlemania. The story depicts a New Jersey garage band that gains some regional acclaim, but never cracks the big time.  (Randy Newman’s wistful song “Vine Street” effectively conveys the same story in less than three minutes.)

Audiences seem split on the film, with a favorable rating of just 48 per cent recorded on the website. Chase’s landmark TV series, The Sopranos, changed television drama entirely for the better, but critical reaction to his latest project is all over the place.

Disappointed notices have filled the Denver Post, the Charlotte Observer, the Orlando Weekly (“God save us from boomer nostalgia, and its endless idealization of the ’60s”.) These may be the same commentators who felt let down by The Sopranos’ perfect concluding episode, which wrapped up the series with the main characters seen quietly enjoying a meal in a Route 17 diner. It may take a bullet in the skull to satisfy a hardcore crime-drama fan, but, undeterred, David Chase is still prepared to patiently explain one more time what is meant by “art.” Those who panned Not Fade Away will fail to grasp that, sure, it’s bad – because it has to be.

Has to be, because rock ‘n’ roll is alright, and movies can be okay, but movies about rock ‘n’ roll are nearly always awful. Thus, Chase pays homage to the era, and the art-form, by crafting a deliberately flawed piece. That’s exactly how secure the man is in his storytelling.

From the earliest releases in the genre (the 1956 epics Rock Around the Clock and Don’t Knock the Rock), the filmmaker’s traditional objective has never been to tell meaningful tales; rather, it’s about relieving Buddy and Sis of their babysitting and pizza-delivery wages. That was the plan devised by seminal auteur “Jungle Sam” Katzman, producer of Rock Around the Clock and and its many, many sequels. In 1962, six years into establishing the mold of teen cinema, Jungle Sam summarized his philosophy of filmic art for a writer from England’s New Musical Express: “Twist Around the Clock only cost $250,000 to make, but in less than six months it grossed six million—so of course I’m gonna make more Twist movies!”

Because it takes one sharp operator to recognize another, it was inevitable that Jungle Sam would find his way to Colonel Tom Parker, and vice-versa. The Colonel, née Andreas Cornelis van Kuijk, was the notorious ship-jumper from Breda, Holland, who landed illegally in the American south, where he masterminded the spectacular career of none other than Elvis Presley. El, featured in a brand new musical extravaganza several times each year, ruled as the Rock ‘n’ Roll King, and became the sacrificial cash-cow to the North American grindhouse movie circuit.

Not just bad, but bad even for an Elvis film

Presley’s cinematic output, though prolific and too obviously profitable, still had room for bottom-line improvement, which may have led his manager to seek out the services of Jungle Sam. For, who knew more about squeezing extra nickels out of celluloid than the man who built the model? (One of Katzman’s cost-cutting maneuvers was to cast the actress Hortense Petra, whenever possible. Miss Petra, born Hortense Petrimoulx, also went by the name of Mrs. Jungle Sam Katzman.) The Katzman-produced musicals Kissin’ Cousins (1964) and Harum Scarum (1965) received some of the worst reviews ever accorded an Elvis movie, and you know that’s really saying something.

Harum Scarum is recognized as the worst-of-worst, placing Elvis against a fictionalized backdrop of the strife-torn Middle East. Although it is far from conclusive to suggest that the movie’s dialogue exacerbated the onset of the Six-Day War, two years later, it did little to ease tensions in the region. (In the script by Canadian screenwriter Gerald Drayson Adams, Presley’s character responds to the line, “I am Sinan, Lord of the Assassins,” with this parry: “Well, ah’m the Sheik of Araby. Whadda ya want with me, anyway?”)

While Katzman and the King failed to mesh as artistic partners, the rules for rock ‘n’ roll movies, along with a few other things, were upended by the 1964 release of Richard Lester’s A Hard Day’s Night, starring John, Paul, George and Ringo. Lester wisely retained the inherent dumbness of the form, overlaying frenetic action with his own rémoulade of symbolism and anarchic humor. The Lester formula instantly became the standard that would follow. Jungle Sam responded with a shrug and switched to exploiting other dumb new topics: hippies, bikers and the sexual revolution. (On the other hand, Elvis took the sea-change pretty hard, and lost his taste for acting.)

Knock-off versions of A Hard Day’s Night followed through the rest of the 1960s, featuring lesser British acts, such as the Dave Clark Five, Freddy and the Dreamers, Gerry and the Pacemakers, Herman’s Hermits, and others – right up to America’s Pre-Fab Four, the Monkees, which proved to be something close to the end of the line. Reviewers agreed that the Monkee’s surreal vehicle, Head, was a dumb picture with inappropriate pretensions. That was precisely correct, although these days Head is regarded with a new appreciation, as a subversive period-piece with decent tunes.

Hollywood can’t be bothered pumping out rock ‘n’ roll movies any more. Every now and then, someone will get the idea to try a new sensation, say, Eminem, in a movie such as Eight Mile, and the response will be polite, respectful, and disinterested. More often, a nostalgia project will get the studio’s green light, and some cheesy variation of American Graffiti or That Thing You Do! will trudge its way toward couch-ridden baby-boomers via Netflix.

Not Fade Away falls into the lame-nostalgia category, but it’s still a nice try. Featuring scenes that are either cliched, or puzzling, or trite, along with a few that highlight the great James Gandolfini, and consequently pack some power, the movie doesn’t come together until the very last moments. Chase inserts into his soundtrack Jonathan Richman’s 1976 classic “Roadrunner,” joltingly juxtaposed against a disposable act appearing on an old American Bandstand episode from the monochromatic pre-Beatle 1960s. It’s a slick stunt, but these days it’s also a trick that any smart kid could create in minutes and upload to YouTube from his bedroom.

Which, when you get down to it, may well have been another part of the point David Chase was trying to make, in his clunky, wheezy rock ‘n’ roll movie kind of way.

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