Based on an Oliver Sacks case study, entitled “The Last Hippie”, in his book An Anthropologist on Mars, The Music Never Stopped is a fascinating story about the complexities of memory and music, as well as a story about a father and son relating to each other, with both misperceptions and understanding, through music.
As the film opens, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) is in the hospital with a serious medical condition and his parents, whom he has been estranged from for almost twenty years, have been contacted. As Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour) are brought back into Gabriel’s life, the film uses flashbacks to tell the story of the family’s fracture.
Gabriel is diagnosed with a benign brain tumor that has gone untreated for too long, and as a consequence his memory has been damaged. Specifically, he is unable to create new memories. Set in 1986, much was still being learned about the brain. When Henry reads about Dr. Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond) having some success using music therapy, he hires her to work with Gabriel in the care facility he lives in.
Initially, Gabriel is in an almost catatonic, coma-like waking state, but he exhibits some connection to the ambient music on television and the radio. Gabriel’s love for music is clearly drawn from his father’s influence. Henry played his favorite songs for Gabriel as he was growing up and would quiz him on the artists, years, and personal stories that went along with them. The early flashbacks offer insight into Henry’s own relationship to music. While Gabriel’s love for music may have started with his father’s favorites, growing up in the ‘60s, his real love was for the rock ‘n’ roll of the time.
Flashbacks to Gabriel’s teenage years show Henry’s inability to understand Gabriel’s devotion to his rock bands as the main conflict in their relationship. As Gabriel also becomes more politicized and outspoken about the Vietnam War, and authority in general, Henry blames the music and their differences on being brainwashed by these strange bands his son in obsessed with.
Dr. Daley’s breakthrough with Gabriel comes when she sees him respond to a recording of “The Marseilles”. However, while there is an initial moment of recognition, it quickly shifts to one of confusion. When Dr. Daley figures out that he is really remembering The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” which uses “The Marseilles” in its opening, Gabriel comes alive with personality and enthusiasm. It’s a wonderful scene that serves as an illuminating glimpse into Gabriel and begins the process that eventually leads to remarkable progress.
As Gabriel responds more and more to the music that he loves, he reverts back to the time when he first discovered it. Henry’s difficulty in understanding Gabriel’s music leads to some conflict with Dr. Daley and his wife, Helen. The confrontation between Henry and Helen is clearly a long time coming, and it is only through Helen’s insistence that Gabriel continue the music therapy that Henry begins to connect with his son again.
Featuring classic songs from bands like Bob Dylan, Crosby, Stills, and Nash, Donovan, and most especially The Grateful Dead, the film brings an enthusiasm and joy to the music that is essential to understanding Gabriel. Pucci plays Gabriel’s passion for the music of his youth with unbridled happiness that evokes his true self. His interactions with Henry, Helen, and Dr. Daley, along with those employed in the home where he lives all dramatically improve with the music therapy. Some of the sweetest moments in the film come from his exchanges with Celia, a cafeteria worker he regularly serenades with Simon and Garfunkel’s “Cecilia”.
As Henry begins to understand why Gabriel is drawn to the music he only previously saw as destructive, their relationship evolves into one of peers, rather than an authoritative father/son dynamic. Simmons and Pucci are both particularly good in showing the shift to one of equals with more in common than they would have ever acknowledged. As Gabriel rhapsodizes about his love of The Grateful Dead’s “Truckin’” to Henry, they connect in a way that seems unthinkable at the start of the film. The scene also serves to highlight Gabriel’s larger mindset during his younger years.
Seamlessly moving between 1986 and flashbacks of Gabriel’s earlier life, The Music Never Stopped does a nice job of balancing both Gabriel and Henry’s perspectives. In addition to bringing Gabriel into his present, the music serves as a way to reframe events in their lives for Henry’s consideration. Music is the lens through which they reconnect and mend their fragile relationship, but it is also a way to tell their story through the use of well-placed songs. The Music Never Stopped unabashedly revels in Gabriel’s music and in doing so, offers some insight into understanding the relationship between music and the mind.
The bonus features include some cast interviews, an interview with Oliver Sacks, deleted scenes, and commentary with director Jim Kohlberg.