Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Not Fade Away

Not Fade Away may have a rock ‘n’ roll skin, but its heart apparently lies with Hollywood. Much of the film concerns itself with Doug, a scrawny kid topped with Dylanesque curls who struggles to reconcile his fledgling rock band with his dreams of a filmmaking career. In an apt, if slightly on the nose, bit of geographic symbolism, the film leaves Doug at the intersection of Music City and Sunset Boulevard, suspended between the two artistic poles that have shaped his life. Rock ‘n’ roll, ever the cruel mistress, finally repays Doug’s infidelity by sending a living emissary, Mick Jagger—remember, this is the 1960s—to fuck the lad’s girlfriend. Perhaps that’s why the film prefers not to trust its strongest emotional gut-punch to a Rolling Stones song, but rather a Rodgers and Hammerstein show tune, of all things. The scene comes when Doug’s father (James Gandolfini) watches South Pacific, eyes welling with tears as Juanita Hall implores him to join her in the Technicolor haze. Dying of lymphoma in a New Jersey suburb, the man is stirred to visions of romance thwarted and valour deferred, not faded memories but the impossible past of a life denied him.

Sopranos mastermind David Chase, making his feature film debut here, is particularly astute on the ways everyone from pimply teenagers to pockmarked middle-aged washouts recreate themselves through music. Most filmmakers would render this process entirely in sepia-toned nostalgia-vision; Chase opts for a slightly more ominous approach. After all, the new world can’t exist without the destruction of the old, can it? The first hint comes early on, when the growling opening riff of “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction” rises out of the mechanical bleating of the emergency broadcast system like a radiation-soaked superhero crawling from a blast site. Later, Chase’s narrator declares the nuclear bomb and rock music the two great American inventions, but the film treats both as variations of the same destructive impulse. (Oppenheimer and Rickenbacker are the Romulus and Remus of this new empire.) In the film’s final moments, Los Angeles is ruined and beautiful, its nighttime streets so devoid of life viewers may wonder if Chase neglected to include the scene where the bomb finally dropped. All the cars are tuned into tomorrow, when the Sex Pistols are charging through their shambolic take of Jonathan Richman’s “Road Runner.” This is what the end of the world sounds like, and no one wants to be part of the apocalypse if they can’t dance.

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