**** (out of four)
For a hypothetical, four-band concert comprised of the best music-related movies of the past 20 years (documentaries not included), “Almost Famous” would obviously headline. “Crazy Heart” performs second. Tom Hanks’ “That Thing You Do” goes on first.
What’s slotted third? “Sopranos” creator David Chase’s personal, deeply felt feature writing-directing debut “Not Fade Away,” which makes Hanks’ immensely entertaining comedy look goofy and shallow. Like “TTYD,” “Fade” focuses on a band trying to make it in 1964 and a drummer who’s not the group’s first choice. The timekeeper replaced in “Not Fade Away” joins the Marines, leaving an empty seat for Doug (John Magaro of “Liberal Arts”). Doug’s never been much of a drummer, nor an athlete—two limitations he blames for his inactivity in the female department.
Among many other triumphs, “Not Fade Away” captures Doug’s life clicking into focus after high school, even as some people—and, at times, Doug himself—struggle to see themselves and others as anything other than the way they were back then. Now Doug embraces a chance to take over singing duties, muttering, “I can sing that song better than you,” despite knowing his friend, the band’s singer (Jack Huston), won’t be happy about it.
Doug’s confidence, and his soulful voice and stage presence, also attracts his former classmate Grace (Bella Heathcote of “Dark Shadows”), who Chase resists writing as some thinly drawn hottie for the hero to ogle, win and ultimately dismiss. Grace and all of the movie’s main characters have fully drawn personalities and vivid relationships, including the resentments and jealousies that can crop up when friends become colleagues and a hobby becomes a business.
Underneath the dedication and struggle of Doug’s band lingers the escalating popularity of the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, captured in a clip from Dean Martin’s show as he rolls his eyes at the latter’s performance. So much in life, and especially in the entertainment business, doesn’t seem worth taking seriously until it is. Of course, Chase bakes plenty of serious moments into “Not Fade Away,” including President Kennedy’s assassination, the work of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and a health scare for Doug’s father (James Gandolfini). They’re all used as backdrops in a movie that beautifully, sometimes heartbreakingly documents people living in the moment, doing what feels right at the time.
More than the solid Beatles tale “Nowhere Boy,” “Not Fade Away” recreates a period and feelings of music running through your blood, of egos and opportunities, of transparent crushes and the gradual acquisition of knowledge. You’ll be overcome with satisfaction and nostalgia, whether or not you lived through it the first time.
Watch Matt on “You & Me This Morning,” Friday at 6:55 a.m. on WCIU, the U
Want more? Discuss this article and others on RedEye's Facebook page.
Copyright © 2015, RedEye