It takes painstaking work to replicate a mid-sixties Jersey garage band, particularly when your boss is Steven Van Zandt of E Street Band fame. "He's a stickler for everything that's authentic," said Robbie Mangano, who worked for Van Zandt, the music supervisor on Not Fade Away, a coming-of-age story written and directed by Sopranos creator David Chase. "Steven would come in and check everything out, like how high do you hold the guitar? Is it Beatles-high?"
Mangano's initial job of giving guitar lessons to two of the film's actors morphed into running a garage band boot camp. "Steven wanted them to get comfortable playing together, so I was asked to stay after guitar lessons. At first, I'd play along and sing and just lead them through the songs they were starting to learn, and (actors) John (Magaro) and Will (Brill) and Jack (Huston) would be trying to play together in a band for the first time."
The quest for authenticity also called for Mangano to teach a musical vocabulary that stopped in 1967. "The actors would have no modern technique. They were basically playing in the world before the influence of Jimi Hendrix. They'd play 'Gloria' by Them and it sounded so garage it was not even funny."
In his own career, Mangano is anything but a garage band hack. He regularly tours with Frank Zappa alumni bands, playing prog-rock at the other end of spectrum in terms of degree of difficulty. Mangano, who shares the North Jersey Italian pedigree of Chase and Van Zandt, cut his teeth in a wedding band at age fifteen and went on to hone his big-league chops transcribing solos for Guitar World magazine before becoming a hired gun for players like Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine.
Unlike other garage bands, Mangano's crew had to be able to match the playing of a soundtrack laid down by Van Zandt and some of his pals from the E Street Band, who had done their professional best to recreate the occasional unsteady playing of amateurs. The actors' ultimate job was to synch their playing on camera with perfectly timed gestures and expressions. "On the day before filming each song I'd ask David (Chase), 'Do you know what parts of the song you are going to shoot?' And he'd sort of sing the lyric lines he wanted to be in the movie. We never knew what was really going to be filmed until the last minute, so we had to know every detail of each song from start to finish" Mangano said. "Some parts of the plot would be about a guitarist not getting enough attention during a guitar solo and getting jealous of the girls eyeing only the singer. I'd read the script and notice this performance drama, and have to work these things into the rehearsals."
This garage band also had to play its first gigs in front of cameras and crew. "When the A.D. would shout, 'Action,' they'd not only have to act, but they'd have to be playing the right notes in front of everybody," Mangano said. "I was surprised when they'd mess up. I'd think, wait, why is he forgetting his riffs? But it was really like their first gig. Stevie and I were kinda like, oh, we forgot, there's gonna be stage fright."
After months of band camp, Mangano gradually lost sight of his pupils as actors. "I'd been working with them for three months teaching them how to be musicians, and I didn't see one hint of acting. Then I'm there on the set to advise them technically, and I realize, whoa, you guys are acting now. All of a sudden I'm thinking, 'Holy shit, you just killed it in that scene.'"