Steven Van Zandt’s gig on “Not Fade Away” began with a disappointment.
The first feature from “Sopranos” creator David Chase, the film follows a group of New Jersey high-school kids as they put together a garage band in the wake of the British Invasion. Chase hired Van Zandt, whom he’d cast as Silvio Dante on HBO’s mob series, to oversee the film’s music — “to design what the band sounds like as they go from 1962 to 1968, and to have that be authentic,” as Van Zandt put it recently in an interview at Hollywood’s ArcLight Cinema.
“So, immediately I said, ‘David, before we even get started, please do me a favor and get musicians who can act.’” He laughed. “No chance. David tried — he talked to a lot of people. But in the end he said, ‘I’m sorry, the acting’s gotta come first.’”
Chase probably felt confident that his actors — some of whom had never before touched an instrument — would be in good hands: Beyond his film and TV work, Van Zandt, 61, is revered by rock fans for his longtime role as a guitarist in Bruce Springsteen’s E Street Band; he also hosts a popular radio show heard on Sirius XM and on terrestrial stations such as 100.3 the Sound in L.A.
For “Not Fade Away,” which Chase based in part on his own adolescent experiences, Van Zandt submitted lead actor John Magaro and the rest of the film’s band, the Twylight Zones, to three months of what he called “musical boot camp.” By the end, he added with a grin, “they’d learned how to play.”
Indeed, some of the most endearing scenes in this remarkably heartfelt movie depict that effort, particularly one in which Magaro’s character attempts to master the foundational Bo Diddley beat behind the drums.
As music supervisor, Van Zandt had to master some maneuvers of his own to license a number of period songs — including some by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones — for use in “Not Fade Away.” (The film opens with the unmistakable guitar riff of “Satisfaction.”)
Chase’s reputation with “The Sopranos” is one reason rights holders returned his calls, Van Zandt said. “But it helped that I happen to know a couple of Beatles and a couple of Stones.”
Van Zandt estimated that 10% of the movie’s budget went to licensing fees for approximately 50 songs — a “ridiculous” number, he said, compared with the 2% most movies spend.
As with everything in Chase’s on-screen world, though, the accuracy of the details was essential to the project.
“His use of music is so integrated into the emotional story line,” Van Zandt said. “And people notice that. It’s like, ‘This whole scene is based on this song.’”