Based on a true-life case study by neurologist/author Oliver Sacks (Awakenings), the film tells the story of a suburban New York couple, Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen Sawyer (Cara Seymour), who reconnect with their 30-something son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), in 1986, after nearly 20 years estranged. The complication: Gabriel has been affected since 1970 by a benign but severe brain tumor that essentially froze his ability to make new memories. And for the most part, his interactions with other people have become blank and emotionless.
Gabriel is attended by a music therapist (Julia Ormond) once it becomes clear that Gabriel’s beloved ’60s counterculture tunes—particularly those by The Grateful Dead—revive his personality. But first-time director Jim Kohlberg and his screenwriting team don’t allow the story to become just another doctor/patient triumph-of-the-spirit story. And while the culture clash between Greatest Generation Henry and hippie Gabriel is part of their conflict, the film doesn’t linger there.
Instead, The Music Never Stopped becomes something rarely seen in movies: a father-and-son love story, one in which Henry’s need to re-frame the past becomes just as important as Gabriel’s need to be freed from being frozen there. It all builds to a surprisingly effective climax at a Dead concert, which exploits the inevitable humor of an uptight suburbanite in tie-dye yet doesn’t allow that to become the sole punch line. There are a few more expository flashbacks than really seem to be needed as we learn the context for the conflict, and it may be easy to spot where the narrative is headed. Still, the terrific, sensitive performances by Simmons and Pucci make for an honestly affecting tear-jerker about the work it takes for communication to connect.
THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED
J. K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci