‘Sopranos’ Alumni, Back in Jersey
By DAVID CARR
PEOPLE born in the shadow rather than the middle of big things respond in all sorts of ways. Some become spectators or voyeurs, while others turn into haters, cursing the fate that put them at a remove. Then there are those who can’t help but aspire, inexorably drawn toward the glow.
People from New Jersey know all about that. Where they actually live is often less important than their proximity to New York. The epic skyline is a goad, a reminder that not that far away important things are going on without you.
“Not Fade Away,” a film directed and written by David Chase, due Dec. 21 from Paramount, is about a kid named Douglas from New Jersey who wants to be anywhere but where he is. He watches as rock music explodes right before his eyes in a mushroom cloud courtesy of the British invasion in 1964 and decides to run toward it. Douglas is a moderately talented drummer, his band mates are misfits, and his father hates every inch of what he wants to be, but he almost can’t help himself. He ends up onstage, at the mike, and of course, in New York.
Given that backdrop, it makes sense that the credits on “Not Fade Away"include three guys from New Jersey. This is the first feature film from Mr. Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos.” The film’s executive producer and musical supervisor is Steven Van Zandt, the E Street guitarist who played Silvio on that HBO series. And James Gandolfini, who doesn’t need much of an introduction in this context, plays yet another emotionally crabbed father trying to keep his family together in the Garden State.
New Jersey has produced a fair amount of seminal rock — the Four Seasons, Bruce Springsteen, Bon Jovi, the Misfits and the Gaslight Anthem — in part because the guitar strap fits so snugly around the chip on the shoulder that goes with being from there.
“Before we were New Jersey, we were ‘not New York,’ ” Mr. Van Zandt said, sitting in his office on a break from working with the Rascals, a New Jersey combo that is reuniting to perform in a show he is producing. “We were always second best. That’s pretty motivating.”
Mr. Gandolfini, who admits that his youthful music tastes ran more to Lynyrd Skynyrd, said that New York’s gravitational pull explains a lot about the New Jersey aesthetic.
“A large number of actors and musicians are from there,” he said by telephone. “We are overrepresented in the culture. You have a blue-collar, middle-class sensibility right next to one of the greatest cities in the world, which can make for some interesting creative impulses.”
But don’t show up at the movie expecting a brawny rock opera of New Jersey striving. There is none of the epic sprawl or muscle of “The Sopranos,” rather a quietly personal coming-of-age movie about a young man (played by John Magaro) who forms a band with his pals to achieve escape velocity and meet an even more basic yearning: get the girl of his dreams to pay attention to him. It spoils very little to say that the band never amounts to much, but that does not get in the way of Douglas’s finding a kind of salvation through music.
The soundtrack, lovingly assembled by Mr. Van Zandt and Mr. Chase, is a primer on why rock took over the culture in the 1960s, with songs from the Rolling Stones, the Kinks, the Small Faces, Willie Dixon and Bo Diddley, among many others.
Sitting in Mr. Van Zandt’s West Village office and studio, guitars scattered around, Mr. Chase, 67, did not look like a rock fan but didn’t seem ready for the rocking chair either. Wrapped in the psychedelic cocoon of Mr. Van Zandt’s space, he listened intently as his collaborator, 62, every inch a rocker in his trademark bandanna, talked about the music that powers the film.
Mr. Chase was less interested in a hero’s journey to the top of rock than in telling a true story about how music helped a kid stand on his own two feet as the ground shifted underneath him.
“I wanted to make a movie for all of us who wanted to be rock stars and didn’t,” said Mr. Chase, who took a turn at playing drums when he was a young man. “And that’s a lot of people.”
Douglas is looking for a version of himself beyond his father’s prosaic lot in life. He finds it staring into the liner notes of the great records of that age. When he is asked to sit in on drums with a local combo with Eugene (Jack Huston) and Wells (Will Brill), that world comes to life in tantalizing fashion. They make plans for stardom in the absence of much evidence, which seems less callow than charming in Mr. Chase’s telling.
When Douglas gets a shot at the mike and shines, Grace (played by Bella Heathcote), the girl who never looked twice at him in high school, suddenly begins looking at him approvingly. A slow, rolling argument over custody of the band, the spotlight and the girl ensues, the kind of tug-of-war that provided fodder for every episode of “Behind the Music.”
“That’s part of why this movie rings to true to me,” Mr. Van Zandt said. “The truth of the matter is most bands don’t work out and even the ones who do work, there are conflicts: Jagger-Richards, Lennon-McCartney, even Daltrey and Townshend, you name it, two guys who depend on each other tend to have problems. Frankly I don’t get that. If I find somebody I get along with, I cherish that relationship.”
Given that he’s been in the E Street Band for decades and chose to go back to work with Mr. Chase after six seasons of “The Sopranos,” Mr. Van Zandt is not just gassing on.
Douglas is less white-hot talent than young artist in the process of becoming. His band mates like the idea of making it, but he’s the one who goes all in, writing a song, “St. Valentine’s Massacre” (actually written by Mr. Van Zandt), that reflects all he has internalized and what he might have to contribute of his own.
“I think he’s the one who’s driven to succeed,” Mr. Chase said. “I don’t think the other guys are. He has to get out of where he is, to rise above and be part of something bigger.”
Throughout the movie the televisions in various scenes glow with portent. The president is shot, the Beatles come to America, and Vietnam rages, all reminders that this is a moment when everything seems up for grabs. The film opens with Joey Dee and the Starliters doing the twist on television, a bigger deal than it sounds.
“That is a major cultural moment,” Mr. Van Zandt said. “Right there on television, a sexualized African-American form of dancing. Everything sort of changed right there.”
Mr. Chase, who labored over the song choices in “The Sopranos,” believes that the anthems of the ‘60s — Mr. Van Zandt describes it as “the Renaissance” — were transformative in a way that today’s music can’t be.
“Music was my first window into the creative world,” he said. “I wasn’t a kid who could draw or write poetry. When I saw the Beatles and the Stones, it crossed my mind maybe I could do that. They started doing things that were clearly artistic in that they were dealing with large subjects — death, betrayal and sadness. At the time I thought, ‘I guess that’s what you call art.’ ”
Mr. Van Zandt shares the generational conceit, suggesting music has lost the march to a clutter of other things competing for young people’s attention.
“New music cannot matter as much because there’s more of it, and there’s other things to help kids create their identity,” he said. “What did we have? We had the radio. My whole generation, not just musicians like me, was educated by that music culture.”
The contextual weight of music is deeply felt through “Not Fade Away.” Musical chops were an issue in casting, or at least Mr. Van Zandt thought so. As it turned out, none of the main performers could play to begin with.
“You’re damn right I told David we needed musicians who could act,” he said. “And you can see how much of an effect I had.”
Mr. Chase smiled as Mr. Van Zandt said this. “We tried,” he said. “We really tried. But it just didn’t happen.”
As it was, the actors grew into their musical roles over months of teaching and rehearsals. The fact that they figured out how to look and sound like a band gives the film a verisimilitude and resonance. Mr. Van Zandt worried over every musical detail: drumming styles, models of mikes and guitars.
The relationship between the rebelling rock son and work-a-day father warms, not because Mr. Gandolfini’s character comes to understand the music so much as the impulse to get away, to be more than what came before him. His character is ill, with a rotten job and a wife who makes Livia on “The Sopranos” seem sort of cuddly. (What is it with Mr. Chase and mothers, anyway?)
“David can write things in a way that helps you understand a lot with not a lot of words,” Mr. Gandolfini said. “When we were making this, it helped me understand that my own father might have had some dreams besides raising my sorry” self.
He continued, “In a way I felt like the role was a way to honor my father and what he did for me.”
As it turns out, rock greatness exceeds Douglas’s grasp. Depending on how autobiographical the film is — it is and it isn’t, according to Mr. Chase — that would-be rocker went on to put a dent in the culture by picking up a camera and telling a story about another guy from New Jersey trying to find a place to stand.