You expect a hot dose of bada-bing, what with David Chase, creator of HBO’s groundbreaking crime drama The Sopranos, making his feature debut as a writer-director. Instead, Chase offers a gritty, graceful salute to rock & roll. Like Douglas (John Magaro), his film’s protagonist, Chase grew up in suburban New Jersey in the 1960s playing covers of Buddy Holly and the Stones in his garage. Unlike Douglas, Chase never went farther than his garage. But the impact of the music, the way it opened doors to a larger world that embraced TV, film, politics and renegade social change, never left Chase. His love for the period permeates every frame.
Douglas and his bandmates Eugene (Jack Huston of Boardwalk Empire) and Wells (Will Brill) vie for the attentions of Grace (a luminous Bella Heathcote), and they comically and touchingly prepare for a fame that never comes. Home from college, Douglas debates his old-school father (a splendid James Gandolfini), who hates his Dylanesque hair and Cuban heels. Later, at a restaurant, when Dad confesses to an affair and a possibly terminal illness, father and son make a connection that is more heart-piercing for being so tentative. Chase shows a natural affinity for actors, who are uniformly excellent. The awkwardness comes in letting some of the stories breathe at the expense of others, suggesting something lost in the cutting. The music, expertly curated by Steven Van Zandt, is in the film’s DNA. Watching Antonioni’s Blow-Up at a theater with Grace, Douglas complains about the lack of scoring in a silent park scene. “The trees are the music,” Grace tells him. She knows the secrets that lie in the spaces between words and music. So does Chase. His ardent, acutely observed debut makes him, at 67, a filmmaker to watch.