'Of Mind and Music': Film Review

Of Mind and Music Still - H 2016
Courtesy of Monterey Media

Of Mind and Music Still - H 2016

A moving drama enhanced by superb performances.

Joaquim de Almeida plays a neuroscientist attempting to help a street singer with Alzheimer's disease in Richie Adams' New Orleans-set drama.

The plague of Alzheimer's disease and the emotional toll it takes on caregivers has, sadly, long been a fruitful subject for drama. But Richie Adams' Of Mind and Music is a particularly moving entry in the genre, gaining strength through its undeniable authenticity. The film is based on a novel by Nicolas Bazan, a neuroscientist specializing in the subject, who also co-wrote the screenplay and executive produced. Featuring outstanding performances and making excellent use of its scenic New Orleans locations, the film handles its delicate subject matter with a deeply affecting emotional restraint.

The opening scene alone will tug at the heartstrings of anyone who has experienced the illness through a loved one. Sitting quietly with his elderly mother is Dr. Alvaro Cruz (Joaquim de Almeida), who informs her that he won't be seeing her for the next few days while he attends a medical conference in Paris. She seems to understand, but a few moments later, as he's heading out the door, she asks if she'll see him tomorrow.

"Yes, mama," he replies in a sad, resigned tone. "See you tomorrow." 

She dies while he's away, leaving him both grief-stricken and guilt-ridden. He withdraws from work, consoling himself by wandering around New Orleans' French Quarter and partaking of the music both he and his mother loved. There he encounters the street performers Una Vida (Aunjanue Ellis), a singer whose ethereal voice captivates him, and her elderly guitar-playing accompanist Stompleg (Bill Cobbs).

Returning several times to hear them perform, Cruz soon realizes that the songstress is suffering from Alzheimer's and that Stompleg is as much her caregiver as her musical partner. He also discovers that her symptoms are dramatically lessened by music (an idea also explored in the recent documentary Alive Inside) and, motivated by both personal and professional reasons, he offers to lend his assistance.

The intervention proves necessary, as Una Vida's condition worsens, even as Stompleg is preparing to retire to an old age home out of state. Her adopted daughter, Jessica (Ruth Negga), is hostile to Cruz's efforts and has intense personal issues of her own. But she reluctantly agrees to help him locate Una Vida's son, who she was forced to surrender to social services when he was five years old.

Interweaving its moving tale with haunting dream sequences in which Cruz imagines himself as a child with his vibrant young mother, the film is an evocative portrait of love and loss. By the time it reaches its highly emotional final scene, it has long since earned our tears.

De Almeida, often seen in villainous roles, delivers a beautifully understated turn as the grieving doctor struggling to come to terms with loss both intellectually and emotionally. Ellis powerfully conveys the ravaging effects of her character's illness, and the ever-reliable Cobbs is terrific as her loving friend.

With its overall effect further enhanced by superb cinematography and gorgeous musical score, Of Mind and Music is a quiet gem.   

Distributor: Monterey Media
Production: Una Vida Productions
: Joaquim de Almeida, Aunjanue Ellis, Bill Cobbs, Ruth Negga, Sharon Lawrence, Andre Royo

Director: Richie Adams
Screenwriters: Richie Adams, Nicolas Bazan
Producers: Richie Adams, Brent Caballero, Nicolas Bazan, Nancy Green-Keyes
Executive producer: Nicolas Bazan
Director of photography: Tom Lembcke
Production designer: Kenneth Hardy
Editor: David Rogow
Costume designer: Kim Martinez
Composer: Carlos Jose Alvarez

Rated PG-13, 97 minutes