There's a compressed, episodic feel that should doom this 1960s rock 'n' roll period piece, but somehow never quite does. "Not Fade Away" follows the efforts of a New Jersey rock band to find fame and fortune beyond its small-town renown during the turbulent years spanning the Kennedy assassination and the Summer of Love.
In keeping with the period setting, the mode of the movie is a bit of a throwback — the kind of coming-of-age story that focuses on the moral education of its protagonist.
When we meet Douglas (John Magaro), his attitudes are rooted in the conventions of his father, Pat (James Gandolfini), a stressed-out small-business owner struggling to save for his children's education. Douglas thinks, long before the war in Vietnam escalates, that he might even join the military and drive tanks. Before long, however, the rebellious, yearning thrum of rhythm and blues gets under his skin. He grows his hair and begins to adopt the political fashions of the day.
At first, he's a bit of a wallflower despite his musical ambitions. As drummer and background vocalist, he seems content in the shadow of local rock hero Eugene (Jack Huston). He comes out of his shell when he gets the opportunity to sing lead at a house-party gig when Eugene is incapacitated from a hilarious marijuana mishap.
His talents draw the attention of his high school crush, Grace (Bella Heathcote), who urges him to seek a more prominent role in the band, saying Douglas' singing makes the music sound "more soulful."
The plot feels synoptic, almost like the summary of a television series meant to play out over several seasons. This doesn't come as a big surprise because filmmaker David Chase, who created "The Sopranos," is used to the more novelistic style of TV.
In "Not Fade Away," Mr. Chase forgoes the tick-tock of a developed story line and uses images and music to advance the story. For instance, we can track Douglas' transformation through his hair as he shifts from a close-cropped look to the mop worn by Keith Richards in the Rolling Stones' early days to an unruly, Dylanesque mass of curls.
It's hard to watch "Not Fade Away" without imagining it as a sweeter, more hopeful version of "The Sopranos," and not just because of the presence of Mr. Gandolfini as looming father figure. While the mobsters of Mr. Chase's TV show vied for money and power in a zero-sum game where failure meant death, the characters in "Not Fade Away" are simply struggling to find their own voices amid the confusion and tumult of their age. "The Sopranos" teetered between dark comedy and plain old darkness, while "Not Fade Away" unabashedly revels in the enthusiasm of youth.
There are funny moments, but the overall effect is one of remarkable sincerity and optimism. It's no accident that the movie's sole musical anachronism — the Sex Pistols' cover of Jonathan Richman's anthem "Roadrunner" — is itself an ode to the beauty and urgency of being young and full of possibility.
The movie's enthusiasm for rock music is lyrical and infectious, the soundtrack is hard to beat, and it certainly will strike a resonant and nostalgic chord in anyone who ever chased the dream of rock 'n' roll fame.
TITLE: "Not Fade Away"
CREDITS: Written and directed by David Chase
RATING: R for brief nudity, profanity and drug use
RUNNING TIME: 112 minutes.
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS