There is plenty of hope but little glory in "Not Fade Away," David Chase's sympathetic, acutely drawn portrait of a young Italian-American musician in New Jersey chasing 1960s rock 'n' roll dreams.
That character, Douglas Damiano (the perfectly cast John Magaro), is not a baby Bruce Springsteen or Jon Bon Jovi surrogate ascending to the pantheon while the whole world cheers. Near the beginning of the movie, a voice-over narrator, Douglas' younger sister Evelyn (Meg Guzulescu), remarks, "Like most bands, you've never heard of them."
As you watch the group come together, squabble and fall apart, the movie -- written and directed by Chase, the creator of "The Sopranos" -- offers an extremely knowledgeable and affectionate yet barbed survey of rock's explosive evolution. Its soundtrack begins with the ingenuous "Peppermint Twist" and ends with the ominous, nearly inarticulate grunts of the Sex Pistols.
By focusing on musicians who are talented but finally not good or persistent enough to succeed in the big time, "Not Fade Away" offers a poignant, alternative, antiheroic history of the big beat.
The movie shows the band members learning music by slavishly copying, then adapting, the licks and drum sounds of British invasion groups. It also emphasizes white America's ignorance of the country's roots music before the '60s.
"I don't get it," says Douglas, the band's drummer turned lead singer. "How can the English know all about the blues, and we didn't, yet it's been right here under our noses the whole time?" Good question.
While working as a ditch digger, he is further confused after he exalts the blues to a black fellow worker, who prefers Duke Ellington and Tony Bennett to Robert Johnson.
Two no-nonsense realists -- a tough record producer (Brad Garrett) and Douglas' roughneck father, Pat (James Gandolfini, wonderful as ever), a first-generation Italian immigrant -- lecture him about how success comes through "10 percent inspiration and 90 percent perspiration." Those are not words a young rocker anticipating overnight stardom wants to hear.
The movie's tracking of the decade's cultural calendar is almost obsessively punctilious. It recalls that the time separating John F. Kennedy's burial and the release of the Beatles' "I Want to Hold Your Hand" was only a few weeks. Douglas' story unfolds as a narrative montage in which cultural shock and conservative family values repeatedly clash.
"Not Fade Away" turns darker in later scenes that find Douglas at a party in Los Angeles where the guests, insensate from drugs, mill aimlessly around a swimming pool, and word circulates that Mick Jagger and Charlie Watts are on the premises. Douglas finds himself hitchhiking on a nearly empty street. But when a car pulls over and he is invited in, the driver and his female companion in sinister white makeup appear so fiendish that he recoils. You think of Charles Manson.
Has the rock 'n' roll revolution spun out of the control, leaving Douglas behind in the dust of a scary urban wasteland? Is this what it has all led to?
Like the final moments of "The Sopranos," the ending here leaves it for us to answer that question and to decide what's next. The outlook is not promising.
'not fade away'
* * *
Rating: R (for sexual situations)
Cast: John Magaro, Jack Huston, Will Brill and James Gandolfini
Director: David Chase
Running time: 1 hour, 52 minutes