SUNDANCE REVIEW: The Music Never Stopped

Sundance Film Festival - The Music Never Stopped - Film Still - 2011
Courtesy of the Sundance Film Festival
A sentimental but deeply felt true story about the healing power of music.

The sentimental movie, based on a true story, uses the music of Bob Dylan, the Beatles and the Grateful Dead to bridge the generation gap between a father and son.

PARK CITY -- Based on a true story and an essay titled "The Last Hippie" by neurologist Oliver Sacks, The Music Never Stopped is an effectively emotional look at the power of music therapy to trigger memories lost after brain surgery. Using abundant songs from the '60s by Bob Dylan, the Beatles and especially the Grateful Dead to bridge the generation gap between a father and son estranged by time and a severe medical condition, the sentimental pull of the film is hard to resist. It could find an appreciative theatrical audience among boomers and lively business at home.

The year is 1986, and Henry Sawyer (J.T. Simmons) and his wife, Helen (Cara Seymour), have not seen their son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), for almost 20 years when they get a call that he is comatose in the hospital with a benign brain tumor. The operation is successful but robs Gabriel of his long-term memory, essentially trapping him in 1968, the year when politics and music bitterly separated the once close family.

The doctors offer no hope for Gabriel's recovery, and parental visits become more dutiful than satisfying when Henry's research leads him to music therapist Dianne Daly (Julia Ormand). The idea is to stir his memory through a visceral connection to the music. Henry stubbornly insists she begin treatment with tunes from his beloved big band era, something he once shared with his son. It doesn't work.

Then Daly has an epiphany: What about music from the '60s? When she plays "All You Need Is Love," it's as if a light bulb goes off and Gabriel comes alive. He can recite chapter and verse of when he first heard the song and what it meant to him. Same for "Mr. Tambourine Man" and many others.

But it's the Grateful Dead that really releases the joy Gabriel felt as a young man experiencing this music for the first time. The problem is his father hates that music and initially resists, until he sees the progress his son is making. Desperate to make a connection, he realizes that the only way he can talk to his son is through music.

Gabriel is unable to distinguish between the past and the present -- he thinks the Vietnam War is still going on -- but at least through his love for the music, he is able to access a time when he was alive.

Depicting the '60s in flashbacks could have been cartoonish, particularly on a low budget. But if the look is not always totally authentic, director Jim Kohlberg and cinematographer Stephen Kazmierski manage to capture the spirit of the era. The film's heart is in the right place, and buoyed by the music, the value of this kind of therapy comes through loud and clear. With thanks on the credits to Dylan, Paul McCartney and members of the Dead for the use of their music, it's obvious they also recognized the importance of the subject.

And Kohlberg's smart casting choices and heartfelt performances also help deliver the message. As grumpy as Henry may seem at times, Simmons is far too good-natured an actor to believe he is anything but a good man. Pucci does an admirable job in playing what is essentially two parts -- the catatonic Gabriel, and the hippie Gabriel. And Ormand emanates the kindness her role calls for.

The climatic set piece of the film features Henry taking his son to a Grateful Dead concert against doctor's orders. The tie-dye may be a bit over the top and the performance on stage might not be the real thing--actors play band members -- but when the real Dead sing "what a long strange trip it's been," the film honors the ability of music to heal even the most damaged soul.

Venue: Sundance Film Festival, Premieres (Roadside Attractions)
Production companies: Essential Pictures
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormand, Tammy Blanchard, Mia Maestro, Scott Adsit, Max Antisell
Director: Jim Kohlberg
Screenwriter: Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks
Producer: Julie W. Noll, Jim Kohlberg, Peter Newman, Greg Johnson
Executive producer: Neal Mortiz, Brad Luff
Director of photography: Stephen Kazmierski
Production designer: Jennifer Dehghan
Music: Paul Cantelon
Costume designer: Jacki Roach
Editor: Keith Reamer
No rating, 105 minutes