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Of the Beats and The Beatles: On the Road and Not Fade Away

Two pop culture artifacts from the '50s and '60s serve as the jumping off point for a pair of low-budget dramas that are slipping into theaters this holiday weekend amidst more high-profile fare. On the Road is the long-in-the-works movie version of the seminal Jack Kerouac novel of the same name, the book that has launched a thousand soul-searching road trips in the five decades since its publication in 1957. Set a mere seven years after Kerouac's Beat Generation anthem hit shelves, Not Fade Away -- the feature film debut of The Sopranos mastermind David Chase and the first thing he's made since that show went off the air five years ago -- begins with the arrival of the British Invasion on these shores and the immediate impact groups like The Beatles, The Yardbirds and, particularly, The Rolling Stones has on the life of a suburban Jersey boy, modeled loosely after Chase himself. While both films do a fine job recreating their respective eras, only one really gets past the period trappings and tells a universal story that will resonate equally with viewers who were alive at the time, as well as their descendants.

Let's start in chronological order with those blasted Beats. A book that's been both lionized and ridiculed over the years, On the Road remains one of those rite-of-passage tomes that every teenager (those who actually consume books for fun, that is) feels obligated to read and be inspired by while they're still trapped in the wilds of adolescence. A not-so-thinly veiled account of the author's own exploits criss-crossing America by car with a collection of freewheeling pals (Kerouac named his fictionalized stand-in Sal Paradise, while his buddy Neal Cassady goes by the famous moniker of Dean Moriarty), the book is justly celebrated for its propulsive writing style, which sweeps the reader -- particularly young, impressionable readers -- along for the characters' joyride.

For years, filmmakers have tried to transfer Kerouac's prose to the screen, but those attempts all fell apart for one reason or another. So you have to give credit to Brazilian-born director Walter Salles (who previously made the '50s-set road movie, The Motorcycle Diaries, based on the early writings of one Che Guevara) for at least getting the damn thing onscreen at last, with the help of screenwriter Jose Rivera and executive producer Francis Ford Coppola (who hoped to helm his own version once upon a time). And in terms of its narrative, the film is largely faithful to the book, chronicling the various roads traveled by Sal and Dean (played by Sam Riley and Garrett Hedlund respectively) and the men and women they meet along the way, from reclusive writer Old Bull Lee (a.k.a. William S. Burroughs, perfectly played by Viggo Mortensen) to migrant worker Terry (Alice Braga), with whom Sal shares a brief but passionate fling. Perhaps the movie's most prominent supporting player is Kristen Stewart, who appears as Marylou, Dean's 16-year-old lover and the one member of their traveling roadshow who seems to realize that the good times are destined to come to an unhappy end. Casting off the shackles of her cardboard-stiff Twilight persona, Stewart delivers a performance that's loose, sensual and, in the end, touching; On the Road is largely written as a boys' adventure, but her presence helps lend Sal and Dean's story some much-needed perspective.

Certainly, Salles seems to view the events of On the Road with the same skepticism as Marylou. It's been some time since I read the book, but I remember it having a jubilant tone as opposed to the more jaundiced aura that encompasses the film. Much of that has to do, of course, with the simple passage of time; Kerouac was writing in the moment and the novel reflects that immediacy. Any contemporary attempt to adapt On the Road can't help but take into account the decline and dissolution of the Beat Movement, as well as the personal problems that befell its leading lights. There's a distinctly mournful quality underlying almost every scene of Salles' movie and, in fact, Sal and Dean themselves come across not as paragons of individual freedom, but two overgrown boys who use the open road as a way to escape grown-up responsibility. In a sense, the movie is as much a critique of the book as it is an adaptation. Perhaps that's why it so often feels stuck in second gear dramatically, remaining watchable without ever becoming truly compelling. (The flat performances of the lead actors deserve to shoulder some of the blame as well, as neither Riley nor Hedlund make for particularly interesting traveling companions.) On the Road may finally exist as a movie, but it's destined to remain a footnote to the book's enduring legacy.

Although he doesn't hit the road Sal Paradise-style, Douglas (John Magaro), the gawky Jersey teen at the center of Not Fade Away, goes on his own odyssey over the course of the movie's two-hour runtime, one fueled by the mean guitar licks and soulful singing of the Rolling Stones and other British Invasion bands. Prior to hearing the Stones rocking out on a Dean Martin-hosted episode of The Hollywood Palace, Douglas's head is filled with thoughts of The Twilight Zone and joining ROTC when he attends college in the fall of '64. But then he hears Mick tearing into "I Just Want to Make Love to You" while Charlie Watts slaps the skins in the background, and his plans change overnight. He gets a drum kit and sets up shop in the garage, learning how to keep time to the rock tunes he hears blasting out of the radio. Eventually, he's invited to join an actual band, one headed up by legend-in-his-own-mind guitarist/singer Eugene (Jack Huston). But before the group's first big gig -- a neighborhood basement party -- Eugene literally chokes (on a joint, no less) and Doug ends up taking his place in front of the mic, where he belts out a cover of "Time is On My Side" that leaves the crowd enraptured... and his longtime crush object Grace (Bella Heathcoate) intrigued. As '64 gives way to '65, Doug grows increasingly confident as a musician, but his new passion doesn't sit well with his blue-collar father (James Gandolfini), who regards his son's transformation into a proto-hippie -- complete with long hair and a "fruity" wardrobe -- with abject horror.

Although Not Fade Away combines two narrative arcs that would seem to have been done to death -- the coming-of-age of a suburban white male and the rise and fall of a rock band -- Chase makes these familiar scenarios feel vital and fresh, thanks to a terrific eye for detail, a general avoidance of on-the-nose social commentary and an incredible soundtrack (assembled with the help of Steven Van Zandt, who also wrote the original song "St. Valentine's Day Massacre" that Doug performs in one of the movie's most memorable scenes) that effectively chronicles both the journey of rock music, as well as Doug's own personal journey, through song. Music was always a crucial part of The Sopranos, with Chase using familiar tunes ("Don't Stop Believin'" anyone?) in new and unexpected ways. It's worth pointing out that this decidedly isn't a cover version of That Thing You Do!, the underrated Tom Hanks movie about the rapid rise and faster descent of a one-hit wonder '60s band. We're told from the beginning that Doug's band never hits the big time and, indeed, Chase is less concerned with chronicling the outfit's internal tensions than in depicting the impact of rock 'n roll on his alter ego's evolution as an artist.

Just as The Sopranos rarely went for the obvious dramatic beats, Not Fade Away possesses its own distinct rhythm, with the Chase sometimes jumping months ahead within the span of a single cut and penning dialogue that avoids artificial table-setting. It's the kind of movie that grows richer with repeated viewings, as you pick up on the nuances that the writer/director builds into every scene, thoughts and emotions that are often communicated through silences and asides than pointed, expository sentences. The young cast is excellent across the board, and the scenes between Magaro (whose physical and vocal resemblance to a young Bob Dylan is simply uncanny) and Gandolfini capture the dynamics of a father and son suspiciously regarding each other from across the mile-wide chasm of a generation gap. And Not Fade Away wouldn't be a true David Chase production without a beautifully cryptic final scene (scored to the Sex Pistols' "Roadrunner") that sends his main character off to parts unknown, while also functioning as a tombstone for his life to date and a teaser for what may lie ahead. Far from fading away in the wake of The Sopranos finale, this film suggests that Chase still has plenty of stories left to tell.

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