“It is so disturbing to see my brother curled up in a human knot.” Marjorie Crigler’s journal entry — at once obvious and poetic — sums up the problem of Life. Support. Music. The documentary tells the undeniably affecting story of Jason Crigler, a New York-based guitarist and singer who collapsed while performing at a Manhattan club in 2004, victim of a brain hemorrhage. Watching him in the hospital over many days to come, Marjorie ruminates on the change in his life and her own, the many ways that such a crisis changes lives and reshapes a family.
Marjorie’s insights are offered over shots of a hospital corridor, the camera hovering over the shiny linoleum floor. As she reads off one day’s entry after another — “Day 31: I wonder what it’s like for Jason floating in the netherworld, asleep, asleep, asleep”; “Day 44: Jason has pneumonia”; “Day 145: The world seems closed and frightening in ever surprising ways” — the camera approaches her, seated outside a room’s door, bent over her notebook. This approach is gradual but unsubtle. When at last she fills the frame, the journal reading is less ethereal and personal than it is awkwardly reenacted.
More than once, Life. Support. Music., which airs as part of POV on PBS, seems caught between impulses, sometimes explicit and sometimes allusive. Its opening images show 34-year-old Jason as he was, young and happily anticipating the birth of his first child with his devoted wife Monica. He looks directly into the camera. “I’m sending this message to myself 20 years from now,” he half-jokes, “I want you, meaning me, to receive this.” As his face looms on screen, director Eric Daniel Metzgar narrates, “Thirty days later, Jason’s world stopped spinning.”
Repeatedly, the film tends to explain too much. Here it screeches to a brief pause, then the black screen reopens on a series of small inserts, head shots of Monica, Marjorie, the drummer John, Jason’s mother Carol, et. al. Each has a specific set of memories of that night, and as each speaks, the other shots are stilled, in order to convey the simultaneity of their experiences as well as their utter separation, the difficulty of parsing the event as it was happening. A friend named Laura recalls “some confusion on stage,” and then, “I saw Jason: he didn’t really fall over, but he kind of bent down and then he was just gone.” Monica picks up the saga, describing his complaint of a headache. “I got a call from Monica,” remembers Carol, “in an ambulance to St. Vincent’s.” At the hospital, says Lynn, his father, “There was a lot of concern, a lot of hugging, and a lot of waiting.”
Doctors predict the worst. He won’t survive the brain bleed, they think, and if he does, he would have “very little brain function left.” The film pauses again, then offers a quick trot through Jason’s life thus far — a series of words and phrases spoken by Metzgar over snapshots and home movie footage: “Birthday parties… comic books… new glasses… growth spurts… parents’ divorce… guitar lessons, euphoria, frustration… love, softness, responsibility, introspection, work, art, money, expression, self-doubt.” The language could describe many lives, and the pictures pass quickly, less intimate than generic.
Family members offer a more direct experience, recalling their feelings at the time (“I guess I felt that his personality was always there,” says Lynn, “That his soul was always there”). Monica also makes available the footage she took of Jason’s recovery over a year and a half, video footage complete with dates and time markers, as Jason is removed from New York to Boston’s Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital. “I’m filming you,” Monica tells her husband more than once, as he is increasingly able to acknowledge her presence and that of the camera. “What’s happening?” she asks. “Not much,” he answers.
His honesty is contrasted with the performative, if heartfelt, testimonies by the musician talking heads. “Musically,” says Norah Jones, “There was a big hole in the community.” Or again, Marshall Crenshaw asserts, “It was a big loss for me personally and creatively.” Apart from their awkward inclusions in the film, the artists’ work to raise money for his recovery alludes to the difficulties of paying for long-term recoveries. The film makes brief mention of concerns over Jason’s insurance — which initially caps at $1 million and then extends, via Medicaid, unless doctors attest to his continued “progress.”
This progress — surprising as it is to doctors — is surely inspiring, and attributable in large part to the family’s concerted, inventive efforts. Deciding to bring Jason home rather than send him to a “step-down facility” (nursing home), they devise ways to stimulate him at nearly every waking moment. Marjorie says, she kept thinking of how difficult it would be to process information and experience after months of not communicating inside a body that won’t respond. And so, she says, she conjured activities that would touch him. “If I was in Jason’s shoes, what would engage me?” she imagines. “What smoke signal can we send out to him?” If the documentary can’t quite recapture these signals, it does show the energy and commitment of Jason’s assorted caregivers. “I’m not trying to romanticize it,” says Monica. But she becomes aware of the preciousness of each moment, each sign of self that Jason manages and each family member reflects.
These signs are most effectively realized when Jason describes his own recovery. In a moment that is strikingly concrete, the documentary offers a point of view shot in a swimming pool, therapy imagined as blurry and unstable. “My prior life seems like this hazy dream space,” he says. “I remember the things I did, I remember the people I saw or the places I went. It seems completely removed from my life now.”