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"The Ballad of Narayama" is a Japanese film of great beauty and elegant artifice, telling a story of startling cruelty. What a space it opens…

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30 Minutes on "Not Fade Away"

The first theatrical feature film written and directed by David Chase, the creator of “The Sopranos,” this is an autobiographical tale about the formation of an artistic sensibility. John Magaro plays Doug Damiano, a northern New Jersey teenager whose father Pat (James Gandolfini) is a hot-tempered Archie Bunker-style reactionary who suffers from psoriasis, and whose mother Antoinette (Molly Price) is a depressive who regularly threatens to kill herself. The movie is narrated by Doug’s sister Evelyn, played by Meg Guzulescu, in the manner of a third-person novel, packing a television season’s worth of incident into an hour and 50 minutes yet somehow never feeling rushed. 

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The story covers a six-year timespan beginning in 1962 and ending in 1968, with the hero moving to Los Angeles in the company of girlfriend Grace (Bella Heathcote). There are sardonic bits of observational humor about how pretentious teenagers sound to us rather than to themselves, and some effective moments of domestic distress, revelation, and reconciliation, and all of the period details, from the girls' short skirts and go-go boots to the boys' modified mop-tops and electric folkie fuzz-tops, are perfectly realized, and always treated as enriching details rather than as the focus of a cheap sight gag. The musical numbers are largely performed on the spot and treated as documentary events. For the most part, these are allowed to play out at full length, something movies rarely do, perhaps for fear that the sight of artists doing the thing they've been training to do their entire lives is inherently boring and that the director should either cut away from it as quickly as possible or layer conversation over it. 

In the end, though, the movie is less of a relationship drama set in an earlier era that an examination of the effect of time, culture, and history on the formation of the personality. This was also a central topic of “Mad Men”—not coincidentally, a series by one of Chase’s protégés, Matthew Weiner. Magaro starts out as a sardonic but rather wide-eyed teenager who wants to be a rock n’roll star. His band, which is fronted by a pretentious twit named Eugene Gaunt (played by Jack Huston), gets caught up in the adrenaline rush of 1960s rock n’roll worship. The boys get way ahead of themselves early in the process, fantasizing about going to England and giving interviews to magazines before they’ve learned to play their instruments properly. The movie's perspective, which is leavened by the humor of seeing oneself decades later, makes the characters seem sweetly deluded rather than insufferable, and when they do become insufferable, the universe has a way of punishing them, just as it did on “The Sopranos.”

Although produced on a modest budget, “Not Fade Away” has one of the most extraordinary soundtracks of any film of the last 20 years, probably thanks to the connections of Chase and his co-executive producer, music supervisor, and former supporting player, Steven Van Zandt: James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Bo Diddley, The Moody Blues, Lead Belly, Small Faces, Van Morrison, and Bob Dylan are all represented – and at the very end, as the credits roll, The Beatles come in. And true to “Sopranos” form, the band covers many tunes that you’d expect any young band of that era to cover (such as Dylan’s “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and The Rolling Stones’ “Time is on my Side,” but many of the needle-drops that fill out the soundtrack are deep cuts: Dylan’s “She Belongs to Me,” for instance. The film ends with a music budget flex, a Beatles song, but it’s not a cliche pick that you’ve heard in other movies, TV shows, or commercials: it’s “I Got a Feeling” from “Let It Be,” which was never released as a single. 

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On a “Sopranos”-related note, I urge anyone who is clinging to a literalist interpretation of the final four minutes of Chase’s series to watch this movie and be disabused of whatever preconceived notions they were clinging to. Chase nearly flat-out warns the viewer earlier in the film that his directorial allegiances are to mid-century arthouse head-scratchers like Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow-Up” when Doug and Grace go to see the movie a theater. They even comment on the movie’s eerie use of silence and the sound of wind through the trees—characteristics that would later distinguish “The Sopranos.” The final few minutes serve up an Antonioni-esque puzzler where—as in Holsten’s diner—the point is not to figure out what happened, but to talk about what you think it meant. Chase is on record saying he probably won’t direct again because it’s too much of a slog, and that’s too bad, because this is a sneakily great movie that seems more solid and insightful with each re-watch.

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