The Grateful Dead song title and the involvement of writer Oliver Sacks aside, the first 45 minutes or so of “The Music Never Stopped” seem to offer a wholly different movie than this film turns out to be. Stick with it; you won’t be sorry.
Initially, Jim Kohlberg’s movie seems to be about a family coping with a tragedy, as the parents, Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen Sawyer (Cara Seymour), of a long-absent son get an unexpected call. Their boy, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), now a young man in his mid-30s, has turned up at a local emergency room; the time is 1986.
The bad news is that he has a massive brain tumor. The good news is that it’s benign and operable. Unfortunately, the tumor itself has damaged his brain, eliminating his ability to create new memories.
After the surgery, Gabriel is placed in a rehab and care facility, where he seems mostly catatonic. He barely registers his parents’ presence when they come to visit. But his father reads about music therapy and seeks out a therapist (Julia Ormond), who begins to work with Gabriel, with limited results. Then one day she plays him a Beatles song – and he suddenly comes to life, chattering on about his favorite bands like a teen-age version of himself.
Even as the music of his youth brings him out of his shell with his therapist and his parents, we see in flashbacks of what his life was like as a child and a teen. The juvenile version idolizes his father, memorizing the names of his father’s favorite big bands and their big hits. But, as a teen in the mid to late 1960s, things change.
Gabriel grows his hair long, starts a rock band, protests the Vietnam War. And his father can’t understand it. One eventful night, Henry kicks Gabriel out of the house, never to return – until the brain tumor reunites them.
The irony is not lost on Henry: Finally given a chance to spend time with his son, his only way of getting through to him is through the music that Henry blames for tearing them apart, particularly the songs of the Grateful Dead.
Based on a true story of a case that Sacks chronicled, “The Music Never Stopped” is perhaps a little corny – yet it has a sincerity and emotional depth that ring true. It also has a sense of humor – and central performances that ground the whole thing in a reality that will pull you in.
Pucci, as Gabriel, has a face that’s young and innocent enough to be believable as a teen, but a haunted quality that makes the older Gabriel a tragic figure who still manages to give his parents hope. There’s an openness to his performance at all ages that makes even Gabriel’s rebellious teen self sympathetic.
But this movie belongs to the invaluable Simmons, in the same way that “The Visitor” belonged to Richard Jenkins. An actor of great range and flexibility who has seldom had roles as big as his talent, Simmons carries us on a journey of pain and discovery that is extremely poignant. And Seymour, as the mother who helps narrow the gap between father and son, is wonderfully nuanced playing a woman whose strength is tested by this experience.
“The Music Never Stopped,” opening in limited release Friday (3/18/11), is about the healing power of music and its ability – emotionally, aesthetically – to touch and change our lives. It’s also a moving father-son story that can’t help but choke you up, if you let it.