Hippies remain a dying breed, but they remain; in pockets, riding Greyhounds to the next stop on the Phish tour and popping tents at Bonnoroo. Squares, on the other hand, have evolved with the times to appreciate Nickelback, John Mayer, and whatever else is piped into department stores.
In The Music Never Stopped, a heartfelt story of resonance in its purest forms which premiered at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year, director Jim Kohlberg rewinds music to a time when squares listened to Annette Funicello, and hippies went braless and thought they could make sense out of the lyrics to the Beatles’ “I Am The Walrus”.
However, in one poignant scene, Scott Adsit’s Dr. Biscow offers a musical compromise for J.K. Simmons’ aging square and son Lou Taylor Pucci’s impassioned Deadhead hippie: a Lionel Richie concert. Both reject the idea.
Following the kind of phone call elderly parents dread, J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour come to the aid of their only son, Gabriel, whose 20-year estrangement has ended with the discovery of a destructive brain tumor. Though benign, its damage is apparent and appalling: Gabriel’s short-term as well as recent long-term memories are gone, preventing him from remembering new persons, places, and information after a few minutes, or even a few seconds.
Permanently trapped in an erstwhile mental state from the late ‘60s, Gabriel’s only links to a past he can remember are his concerned, handwringing parents, and the vinyl records of his youth. His condition quickly draws his regretful father, Henry, to his side in an effort to repair not only Gabriel’s memory, but their tenuous relationship.
The absorbing and heartbreaking Lou Taylor Pucci is introduced to music therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond), who unlocks his damaged brain with the initial notes of the French national anthem—also commonly recognized as the introduction to “All You Need Is Love”. Through Daley’s therapy, Henry comes to realize, much to his initial consternation, the only way he can reconnect with his son is by engaging with the same bands and songs, which ultimately drove them apart.
Though a handful of flashback sequences serve to flesh out the divisive relationship here, they feel altogether too thin, drawing too minor a picture of rebellion and parental indignation. The script and performances are better able to soar when the focus is narrowed to Henry’s apprehension toward his ill son—his grim expressions of disapproval ultimately masking a man who cares all too much—and his desperate efforts to reconcile with Gabriel. The joy on the faces of both actors as father and son bond at a climactic Grateful Dead concert is heartbreaking.
At times uneven in the first act, and its sweetness a little too sugar-coated in moments, the film’s PG material eagerly seeks to skim over the more thematic elements of the ‘60s which Gabriel’s father can only silently fear rather than express openly. It seems the film, like Henry, earnestly endeavors to put aside reluctance and biases, as well as the Count Basie and big band, to become immersed in Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead; it concentrates on the healing powers of music without floating the drawbacks of the era across the audience like a stubborn PSA.
Based on a true case study written by Oliver Sacks for his non-fiction work An Anthropologist on Mars, the film takes a major liberty in its creation of a touching if combative relationship between father and son, and foregoes telling the true tale of a doctor and his patient. Included in the DVD’s special features are detailed interviews with Oliver Sacks which shed light on the tragic true story. Extensive interviews with J.K. Simmons and Lou Taylor Pucci and audio commentary from the director also serve to highlight the collaborative, creative approaches to telling the story.
Maybe the grittier realities of the ‘60s are overlooked, but the film’s authentic appreciation for the music, and more beautifully, the attention to the central story of love and respect between a father and son, allow this sincere little drama and its performers to overcome the threat of TV Movie of the Week sentiment.