By Patrick McGavin
Sundance Film fest 2011 (World Premiere)–The gloriously eccentric and fascinating cultural anthropology marking literary work of the British-born neurologist Oliver Sacks (“The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat”) make for some spellbinding reading. In his stories, drawn from his own case studies, the doctor excavates the complex and mysterious inner mapping of the mind as meditations on science, medicine and the inexplicable.
The movies have a wholly different DNA and ecosystem with a contrasting pulse, momentum and texture. Sacks’s best-known work was adapted by Penny Marshall more than 20 years ago “Awakenings,” with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. It was a great subject but a mediocre movie because it never adequately dramatized material and ideas that were almost impossible to render cinematically.
Now, the same inherent structural problem is repeated in the first feature of producer Jim Kohlberg (“Trumbo”). “The Music Never Stopped” is adapted by the writers Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks from Sacks’s essay “The Last Hippie.” The particulars are curious and complex, but the telling is strained and frustratingly inchoate emotionally.
In this fictionalized reworking, Kohlberg works in two distinct storytelling forms, the clinical study of professionals trying to explicate a very particular kind of brain disorder, grafted against a tortured family backdrop. As expected, it makes for a not terribly compelling or natural mix.
Setting the story in 1986, Kohlberg intertwines flashbacks that are meant to evoke a sense of sorrow and loss but too often feel somewhat hysterical and schematic. A middle-aged suburban New York couple, Henry Sawyer (J.K Simmons), an engineer and Helen (Cara Seymour), are both relieved and startled to learn their long-absent son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) has turned up at a local hospital.
Now in his mid-thirties, the son has been ravaged by complications from an untreated brain tumor has severely damaged his cerebral functions and cognitive abilities. He is lucid and responsive though almost completely unable to form or retain new memories. A chance episode involving Gabriel’s curious and impressive command of a piece of music opens up new medical possibilities.
Encouraged by the early results, Henry enlists a prominent music therapist, Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond), to work with Gabriel, using all manner of popular music, chords, lyrics and harmonies, to jolt into recognition Gabriel’s own elective affinities. It’s an intriguing premise. The movie’s strongest parts illustrate the sense of discovery and feeling connected to music, especially the iconic Sixties music closely affiliated with Gabriel’s coming of age, standards though still highly impressive, like The Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan and The Grateful Dead.
Unfortunately, it is also a very narrow and restrictive narrative space to hang the movie dramatically. The tension evolves from the contrasting personalities of father and son. The father’s penchant Big Band touchstones is squarely at odds with his son’s own tendencies and too explicitly points out greater cultural and generational differences.
The father, a World War II veteran, struggles to understand his son, an aesthete and hipster, who is growing up during the extreme social tumult of the 1960s. The father’s dilemma is that in trying to recover his son’s memories, it only exacerbates the profound tensions and unhappiness that brought about their estrangement.
The flashbacks not lack a certainly a fluency and energy, Kohlberg flattens it with a thundering exactness and absence of touch, like a particularly false note of a performance by Gabriel’s band that devolves into a particularly unpleasant and unpersuasive act of political theater and social disobedience. These scenes not only lack conviction, but they are choked in familiarity, so the drama lacks any true revelation or discovery.
The drama turns on the father’s own transformation, who in trying to understand how his own obstinacy and inflexibility contributed to his son’s unhappiness enables him to finally open up and establish some form of a natural and fluid relationship.
In shifting historical tenses, the filmmakers never quite animate the details and possibilities of the three principals, either the relationship of the long-married couple (the role of Seymour appears particularly unfocused and insufficiently developed) or the extended absence of the son.
It is unfortunate because the actors are certainly willing and able to breathe life and form into too familiar material. They often find a spark or moment that rises above the mundane, like Pucci’s confusing and welcome romance with a hospital worker (Mia Maestro) or the interesting byplay between Pucci and Ormond.
They bring the movie to life, but only temporarily and they are finally not given quite enough to transcend the considerable story limitations.