Initially, high school senior Douglas (John Magaro) has little individual identity, eyeing up resident rich girl hottie Grace (Bella Heathcote) while she hangs off the arm the most popular jock. He and his friends have limited social value, spending most of their time dreaming of the unfulfilled wishes their cultural ethos rewards success with. And while Douglas's father (James Gandolfini) wants his son to attend college—noting the economic limitations of the blue-collar worker in an increasingly qualitative society—the lure of popularity and immediate gratification—something mirrored by American indulgence and modernist reality superstar mass delusion—takes over once he sees that unattractive dorks like the Rolling Stones can garner women and money through rock and roll.
Though David Chase's deliberately introspective dissection of American myth indulges in the spectacle and nostalgia of music, featuring an abundance of performances by the band Douglas forms, in addition to a soundtrack with the likes of Bob Dylan, Rolling Stones, The Moody Blues and the Sex Pistols, Not Fade Away isn't necessarily about the power of art and payoff of ambition. As the title suggests, the various players in the film, who are mostly interchangeable ciphers of the time, babbling tenuous hippie-dippy garble and broad musical praise, are not special. Though they strive for significance and importance by mirroring the expectations and advertised ideals of their times, everyone eventually fades away as the story progresses, either signing up for military work or devolving into a life of substance abuse or other indulgence.
As these kids start to grow up, performing the roles that mainstream culture has assigned them, they learn only that their core human flaws are inescapable, which is particularly evident when Douglas obtains, and resultantly has an epiphany about, Grace, whose tendency to gravitate to any given alpha-male is omnipresent. We're never given the impression that anyone can escape the inevitability of mediocrity and failure, regardless of their drive and gusto. The tragedy ultimately becomes the empty American promise of individual importance as unrealistic and unobtainable.
But in crafting a film around meek, diffident ciphers, there is little connection to be had with the characters. It's easy to appreciate the despondent deconstruction of a country imploding on its own hypocrisy but any emotional connection with the material and the eventual undoing of each character is a near impossibility.
Resultantly, Not Fade Away is more thought provoking than it is powerful and engaging, leaving an impression through analysis but a gaping hole where personal reflection could easily be. (Paramount)