For David Chase, the counterculture revolution that consumed the 1960s was a generational conflict that played out against a soundtrack of killer rock songs.
"The Sopranos" creator is poised to make his film directing debut this week with the release of "Not Fade Away" at the age of 67, but for his first foray into big screen entertainment he is fixated on a younger generation, albeit one from a very different era. The movie centers on a rock band coming of age in New Jersey, and never quite making it to the big time.
It stars John Magaro (a dead-ringer for Bob Dylan), Bella Heathcote ("Dark Shadows") and "The Sopranos" veteran James Gandolfini, here standing in for exasperated parenthood.
For Magaro, the film is really a distillation of the conflict between art and war — with the younger generation siding more with music, while the older one opted for arms.
"It's about the threat of nuclear war in the '60s countered by the life and hope that rock 'n' roll gave to a generation," he said. "It's the ultimate choice, really."
That kind of generational clash was never wider than during that tumultuous decade, argues music supervisor and executive producer Steven Van Zandt, who is, after all, something of an authority on the situation thanks to his work with Bruce Springsteen's E Street Band.
"It's a little hard to explain to people now, but I don't think it's happened before the '60s, and it hasn't happened since," Van Zandt said at a press conference for the film last weekend. "So maybe it was a very unique period of time, but there's an expression called the generation gap, and it really did exist. It was the only time in history I think where the parents and their own children were completely at odds with each other. They did not relate to each other at all."
"Not Fade Away" is not a musical, but it is a movie in which music is paramount to the story — indeed, some sections play out almost as music videos for anthems like the Rolling Stones' "Lady Jane" or Joey Dee and the Starliters' "The Peppermint Twist."
In fact, music is more totemic for the band of aspiring rockers than major historical events like the Vietnam War and the Martin Luther King Jr. assassination that unfold around them and define the decade. Van Zandt claims that kind of tunnel vision reflects his own experience during the period.
"I was there and, you know, it was, like, yeah, civil rights going on, the cities are burning down and assassinations and Vietnam, but let's get the chords to the new Yardbirds song," he said.
For the characters, the defining moment instead is not news reports of riots in Watts or shots of bodybags being loaded onto Chinook helicopters. Rather it is the first U.S. national television appearance by the Rolling Stones on "The Hollywood Palace" in 1964 that makes the biggest impression. During the program, an eye-rolling Dean Martin makes it clear that the Stones' brand of sensual blues is at odds with his Vegas style crooning.
"I saw that when it happened," Gandolfini recalled during the press conference. "And I saw my past and future in front of me. Dean Martin making fun of the Rolling Stones. And it was the most important moment of — well, first or second most important moment of my life because the Beatles happened four months earlier, which was the first most important moment of my life."
To help the twenty-somethings tapped to portray the film's youthful protagonists understand the impact this music had on Gandolfini's generation, Paramount, the studio behind the film, sent them dozens of records from the likes of the Stones and the Paul Butterfield Blues band. Though Chase joked that many actors auditioning for the roles mispronounced Mick Jagger as Mick Yagar, he found that his troop of actors quickly embraced the music that forms the spine of his movie.
"It's so much better than what has mass appeal today," Heathcote told TheWrap. "There's something about it, particularly with the Stones, they don't give a s—, they just carried that air, and Mick Jagger and Keith Richards were sexy guys. There was something about them that was original and so timeless."
It also called for Van Zandt to run a musical boot camp for Magaro and the other actors who make up the band, none of whom played the instruments they were expected to use on screen. After three months of drilling, Magaro said he got the hang of the drums.
"I wouldn't say I'm the next Ginger Baker, but I was able to play the songs," he said. "I was lucky, because early rock 'n' roll like Chuck Berry and the Kinks used really simple beats."
It all builds up to a final evocative image of a young girl, the sister of Magaro's character and the film's narrator, dancing in the middle of a deserted Sunset Boulevard. As she sways, she talks about the choice between Armageddon and rock. It's clear, where Chase sides.
"What she says is a thought that I had one time at a Stones concert and it was my way of saying how powerful and how beautiful that music really is," Chase said.