Jim Kohlberg’s “The Music Never Stopped” is a well-meaning but maudlin father-son love story involving the 1960s rock of the Beatles, the Stones, Dylan, and the Dead.
Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons) and his grown son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), bond over the hippie music that long along played its part in a damaging rift between them. Forgiveness gets its chance when Gabriel develops a huge brain tumor and loses his ability to make any new memories whatsoever.
Simmons is one of those great character actors who rarely have a leading role. It is great to see him offered that opportunity here, although Kohlberg embarrassingly has the balding actor don an unconvincing hairpiece for extensive flashbacks. Set in the 1960s and as far back as 1957, these flashbacks cannot avoid coming off as awkward.
Nevertheless, Simmons, who has a Midwest everyman vibe, gives it his absolute best, much of the considerable heart of this film emanating from his earnest performance.
In an early scene—after Gabriel has turned up with his tumor after a twenty-year disappearance—Henry gets the boot at work. (We cannot help but recall Simmons similarly getting the boot two years ago in Jason Reitman’s “Up in the Air”). When wife Helen (Cara Seymour) then decides to go back to work to pay Gabriel’s hospital bills—and gets a job at Henry’s old office, ouch!—Dad becomes by default the primary caregiver for their son.
It is hardly a responsibility he relishes: there is a lot of uncomfortable, unfinished business with his son still weighing on him. Henry is also initially pessimistic about Gabriel’s chances for coming out of his zombielike state: it is a lost cause. Nevertheless it is Henry who, knowing how much his son loved music as a boy and young man, gets the idea of contacting a music therapist (Julia Ormond) to see if she can help.
“The Music Never Stopped” is based on a case study, originally titled “The Last Hippie,” by neurologist Oliver Sacks and is in the same vein as other Sacks-related films like Irwin Winkler’s “At First Sight” (1999) and Penny Marshall’s “Awakenings” (1990).
It does not take long for the therapist to work her wonders. After playing Gabriel “La Marseillaise” and getting half a reaction, she has an aha moment—what he must really want to hear is the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love,” which samples “La Marseillaise.” Presto! Gabriel is wide awake and talking a mile a minute.
His reveries when listening to his favorite bands, however, are not well written or acted. Every time one of those songs plays, Pucci is suddenly a Pinocchio brought back to life by Ormond’s Blue Fairy. He springs up, dances dreamily around his hospital room, and makes joyous but clunky pronouncements, one after another, like “No one spaces me out like the Dead!” The unevenness of Pucci’s performance is highlighted by how well he handles, on the other hand, the intimate scenes with his two romantic interests: Celia (Mia Maestro), a cafeteria worker at his hospital who takes a genuine liking to him, and Tamara (Tammy Blanchard), his high-school sweetheart who eventually comes back into his life as a married woman with kids.
Maestro and Blanchard both give short performances of ample depth, and it would have been nice to have seen more of them. Blanchard, an actor clearly in her 30s, scores extra points here for nobly suffering the indignity, at Kohlberg’s hands, of having to play her character as a high schooler—in full close-up, no less.
As Gabriel’s condition starts to show signs of improvement, father and son are finally able to revisit the terrible night back in 1968 that their relationship essentially died during a blowout over Vietnam and other issues. For the first time, Henry makes an all-out effort to study and appreciate his son’s music. He even trades in all his old Bing Crosby records for the very same rock discs he once thought were nothing but poison.
Gabriel, meanwhile, remains firmly stuck in the late 1960s, living almost entirely in the past. Henry becomes deeply troubled by the question of whether his son will ever be capable of making any new memories, preferably of the father-son sort.
Could those hippy rascals the Grateful Dead be the answer? Knowing that Gabriel always wished to attend a Dead show, Henry determines to win free tickets to an upcoming sold-out performance. Two tickets at last in hand, father and son hightail it to their first Dead show—the most unintentionally hilarious fake Dead concert likely to ever be committed to film, complete with lookalikes for all the band members—and bond over the Dead’s 1980s hit “Touch of Grey,” which Gabriel has naturally never heard.
At last, that longed-for new memory? Father, son, and “Touch of Grey,” with its “I will get by, I will survive” chorus?
If this sounds like heartwarming stuff, yes, it certainly is. But this is a film that takes an almost self-defeating path—with a dreary look, weak dialogue, and overall glum outlook—to reach its emotional payoff. Despite this being a “true story,” Kohlberg could have cut some of these characters more of a break in the end.
Henry Sawyer – J.K. Simmons
Gabriel Sawyer – Lou Taylor Pucci
Helen Sawyer – Cara Seymour
Dianne Daley – Julia Ormond
Celia – Mia Maestro
Tamara – Tammy Blanchard
A Roadside Attractions release.
Directed by Jim Kohlberg.
Written by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks.
Produced by Jim Kohlberg, Greg Johnson, Peter Newman, Julie W. Noll.
Cinematography, Stephen Kazmierski.
Editing, Keith Reamer.
Running time: 105 minutes.