'Not Fade Away,' Reunion of 'Sopranos' Creator and Star, Unveiled at New York Film Fest (Analysis)
A year after 'Like Crazy,' Paramount is handling another low-budget passion project that is likelier to attract a cult following than major awards.
The New York Film Festival marked the mid-point of its 50th installment last night with its annual centerpiece gala screening at Lincoln Center's Alice Tully Hall, which this year was Paramount's Not Fade Away. The film, a 1960s period piece drama that revolves around music, marks the feature writing and directorial debut of David Chase, the creator of The Sopranos, and reunites him with that trailblazing HBO show's star, James Gandolfini. It revolves, however, around a younger set of actors whose names are not now widely known, but one day will be: John Magaro, Will Brill and Boardwalk Empire's Jack Huston (with his entire face showing, in case you were wondering), who portray music-loving friends who form a band, and 24-year-old Aussie beauty Bella Heathcote, who plays the neighborhood girl who brings out the best and worst in one of them.
A Paramount-hosted after-party at the trendy A Voce restaurant in the nearby Time Warner Center drew an impressive industry crowd. Gandolfini could not make it because his wife is about to give birth, but Chase Magaro, Brill, Huston, and Heathcote were in attendance, as was the film's producer Mark Johnson (an Oscar winner for Rain Man and the immediate past chair of the Academy's foreign language film selection committee) and soundtrack producer Steve Van Zant (Bruce Springsteen's collaborator in the E Street Band who became a Sopranos cast member after Chase noticed his "interesting little Pacino-like face" on the band's album covers). They were joined by Heathcote's boyfriend/fellow Aussie Andrew Dominick, the noted director whose Killing Me Softly is a contender this year; Huston's aunt, the Oscar-winning actress Anjelica Huston; Chase's Sopranos collaborator, the Oscar- and Emmy-nominated actress Lorraine Bracco; Johnson's Rain Man director, Oscar winner Barry Levinson; the actors Richard Schiff from The West Wing and Richard Belzer from Law & Order; and director James Toback.
THR film critic David Rooney reviewed the film very favorably, calling it "a warm, funny, poignant scrapbook that evokes a spirit of youth still relatable in later eras... a richly contextualized snapshot of changing social dynamics, examining the conflict between traditional values of security and stability and the restless hunger for creative fulfillment." I concur with all of that. In fact, it reminded me a lot of Levinson's semi-autobiographical coming-of-age films set in Baltimore -- Diner (1982), Tin Men (1987), Avalon (1990), and Liberty Heights (1999) -- something about which I asked Levinson, whose own film The Bay is playing at the fest (and among the most watched trailers on iTunes), at the after-party. "Yeah, it's got a little bit of that," he agreed. But, like those films, I suspect that this one, which will go into limited release on Dec. 21, is destined not for awards (it's too small-scale and personal), but for art-house success and perhaps even cult-classic status, something with which everyone associated with it could live quite happily, I believe.
At the after-party, 67-year-old Chase told me that he grew up loving music ("Rock 'n roll was everything"), equally admiring The Beatles and The Rolling Stones, with other favorites including The Kinks. Music was also a big part of The Sopranos, which consistently featured great songs and storylines about the music business (the character Hesh Rabkin was a former music industry exec). But he was never able to direct a film about music -- or anything else, for that matter -- until this one, despite writing 13 screenplays over the years. He says he was generally told that they were "too dark." Twice he nearly gave up on writing Not Fade Away -- about 15% of which he says is autobiographical (including the line "Time is on your side," which Heathcote says to Magaro and Chase's future wife said to him) -- but his collaboration with Gandolfini on The Sopranos led him to envision the actor as the father in his script, which inspired him to push on.
After The Sopranos reached its infamous end in 2007, he knew that he "had the heat" -- at least for a little while -- to get his passion project made. He found a receptive partner in Paramount, which has been run since 2005 by Brad Grey, who previously served as an executive producer of The Sopranos. Paramount, like the other major studios, tends to release big-budget films like Transformers, but has, of late, taken on a few projects with small and mid-range budgets -- among them Paranormal Activity (2009), Like Crazy (2011), and the forthcoming Flight -- with the goal of building relationships with promising filmmakers and/or telling the sorts of stories that rarely get made into movies anymore. (In the case of Not Fade Away, which was made for less than $20 million, their biggest expense must have been the licensing of the numerous high-profile songs that are covered in the film.)
Magaro, a New Yorker, seemed awestruck by the proceedings. He recently appeared in Josh Radnor's Liberal Arts, and invited his mom and sister to that premiere, but decided to go solo to this one because of the stress that it had caused him. The unassuming 29-year-old, who recently wrapped Paul Greengrass' Somali pirates flick Captain Philips opposite Tom Hanks, was coifed in this film to look like a young Bob Dylan. (He says that Brill was meant to be like The Rolling Stones' original member Brian Jones and Huston like The Beatles's Paul McCartney). The three youngsters rehearsed constantly with Van Zant -- which he says was something like a master class -- and ended up playing quite well, although the music in the film was dubbed over their own. Asked about the gorgeous Heathcote, he chuckles that he "felt like a troll" next to her, but reasoned that it was appropriate casting because the romantic musicians of the era were "pasty white guys" like him.
Heathcote, meanwhile, arrived at Alice Tully Hall after spending the day at the Hamptons International Film Festival, where she was honored as one of Variety's "10 to Watch: Breakthrough Performers of 2012" along with the likes of Girls's Adam Driver, Argo's Scoot McNary, and -- in absentia -- A Late Quartet's Imogene Poots. She first caught my eye playing dual roles opposite Johnny Depp in Tim Burton's Dark Shadows, which was released back in May; her delicate features and big blue eyes were completely mesmerizing, even in just a few minutes of screen time, and that proved to be the case while watching Not Fade Away, as well, which was actually shot before Dark Shadows but will hit theaters more than half a year after it. I am completely convinced that she will develop into a big star; for now, though, she says -- in a thick Australian accent that caught me by surprise -- she's genuinely happy just to have work, and hopes that Not Fade Away, which she says marked "the first time I read a script that I knew was really good," will lead to other special opportunities.
And the beat goes on.