Lots of good music in a picture that flirts with Hallmark Hall of Fame ambience
Reviewed for MovieWeb by Harvey Karten
Directed By: Jim Kohlberg
Written By: Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks, from the essay "The Last Hippie" by Oliver Sacks
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond, Tammy Blanchard
Screened at: Park Ave., NYC, 3/10/11
Opens: March 18, 2011
William Congreve must be smiling in his grave, knowing somehow that "The Music Never Stopped" enunciates a theme of which he spoke in "The mourning bride" in 1697:
"Musick has Charms to sooth a savage Breast,
To soften Rocks, or bend a knotted Oak.
I've read, that things inanimate have mov'd,
And, as with living Souls, have been inform'd,
By Magic Numbers and persuasive Sound."
You don't have to convince people of this nowadays as you watch youths glued to their I-Pods while simultaneously texting their friends. Music brings people together, not always to sooth, as Congreve said, but even better, to do the opposite: to excite. In his film "The Music Never Stopped," Jim Kohlberg gives cinematic life to Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks's screenplay, inspired by neurologist-author Oliver Sacks's essay "The Last Hippie." Sacks's output includes "Awakenings," his 1973 memoir punctuating his use of L-Dopa to awaken encephalitis survivors who were catatonic and then must deal with a new life in a new time.
This theme runs throughout Kohlberg's movie, one which finds a young man, Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) returned to the hearth of his parents after living on the road for twenty years. Having been hospitalized with a benign brain tumor, he survives surgery but is left with a huge memory gap. He may be cognitively present in a room with others but emotionally he is not able to connect, which reminds some of us of the bad joke:
Joe: "Doctor, doctor, you've got to help me. I have a problem. I can't remember anything."
Dr. Lev: "When did you first notice this problem, Joe?"
Joe: "What problem, doc?"
Gabriel does sometimes appear that dysfunctional. Often he looking nearly catatonic, particularly when his estranged dad, Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons) and his mother Helen (Cara Seymour) visit him in the hospital, shocked at his bearded, emotionally-dead look. Lest we in the audience would need to guess about what brought him to this condition, the movie takes us back to the lad's early years when he and his emotionally close father would listen to songs and discuss them, the boy's knowing the titles, the singers, and the years of release. Much of the time we are in the company of Gabriel as a young man, late teens perhaps, when he enjoyed playing his band and worshipping singers like The Grateful Dead, refusing his dad's insistence that he go to college and give up the rock scene which Henry considered addicted to junk music.
When Henry's research turns up the name of a music therapist, Dianne Daly (Julia Ormand), he persuades her to try her experimental theories of the young man: that memory can be at least partially restored by connecting to the music he loved two decades earlier. Soon enough we get the idea that equally important for the handicapped fellow is the connection he is able to re-establish with his formerly gruff, rigid father.
The narrative plays like a docudrama when concentrating on the therapy sessions, but we are privy to a great deal of music. If you're from the generation that adored Bing Crosby, you'll get an education about the songs of the sixties and artists like Bob Dylan, the Beatles, and the Grateful Dead. If you've never heard of Bing Crosby, your own mind will be refreshed and entertained with records (yes, they had vinyl records in those days) including segments of songs like Steppenwolf's "Magic Carpet Ride," Crosby, Stills & Nash's "Judy Blue Eyes," Bob Dylan's "I Threw It All Away," and a score or more of others.
The scenes are well-acted particularly by veteran performer J.K. Simmons, known to us largely as Juno's dad, and by Lou Taylor Pucci's enacting a personality transformation. Sometimes a neurosurgeon can be too pessimistic: a music therapist here is the saving grace. Still, the project rings too much of a Hallmark Hall of Fame ambiance, a feel-good piece granting that it is based on a true story. The transformation really took place. Getting into the story, I found what saddened me most was to think that young Gabriel, with a ton of hair resting on his excited brow, would be pretty bald in thirty years. (Sorry, J.K.)
Rated: PG, 105 minutes. © Harvey Karten, Member, New York Film Critics Online