Part family rapprochement tale, part classic rock nostalgia trip, “The Music Never Stopped” tells the story, drawn from the real-life case studies of neurologist-author Oliver Sacks, of an amnesiac man restored to his parents after years of estrangement.
Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) comes back to his family in 1986, after years of wandering in the countercultural wilderness, without the ability to form new memories — the result of a sprawling, non-malignant tumor that has been wreaking havoc on his brain. As his parents struggle to communicate with Gabriel, the depths of the fissures in the family come to light. Gabriel’s father Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons) is an engineer nearing the end of his career. Fusty and stubborn, he’s ill-equipped to handle the emotional demands that attend his son’s condition.
As we learn in flashbacks, Henry was happiest as a father when teaching his son about the big band music of his own formative years, and encouraging Gabriel to adopt his tastes. But Gabriel had his own plans, choosing the electric guitar over the trumpet, the Grateful Dead over Bing Crosby and flag burning over flag waving. But music also proves to be the balm that begins to heal the Sawyer family. With the intervention of music therapist Dianne Daley (played by Julia Ormond), it is discovered that through music, Gabriel can access his memory prior to the onset of the tumor — the events of his life are attached like B-sides to his favorite songs.
The film takes a wrong turn when Henry decides that any therapy that privileges rock music over the swing jazz of his own time couldn’t possibly be unlocking anything worth remembering. It’s hard to fathom any father — even a crusty, establishment big-band devotee — inveighing against Buffalo Springfield and Cream while his ailing son is lost in a fugue of disconnected, forgotten moments. Intended to set the stage for Henry’s subsequent transformation, the setup rings false. As Henry, Mr. Simmons (a remarkably versatile actor best known as cantankerous publisher J. Jonah Jameson in the “Spider Man” franchise) seems at sea during these moments. Lou Taylor Pucci does a fine job showing Gabriel emerging from the confines of his troubled mind, embracing the present, interacting with new people and even cracking jokes, but Gabriel’s communicative limits make this his father’s story.
There’s something impressive about a low-budget film determined to tell a story in two separate past settings. The 1980s are brought off with a few key wardrobe choices and some period hairdos, but the 1960s motifs are less convincing, running to love beads, concert posters and VW busses. Still, the music is the most transporting of all the period touches — for Gabriel and for viewers. The film includes long snippets of recordings from the Beatles, Bob Dylan, the Grateful Dead and more.
For those who can overlook some of the forced melodrama, “The Music Never Stopped” is a sweet and often moving meditation on family and healing.
TITLE: “The Music Never Stopped”
CREDITS: Directed by Jim Kohlberg; screenplay by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks
RATING: PG, for mild profanity, drug references, smoking
RUNNING TIME: 105 minutes
MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS
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