When Dr. Oliver Sacks (“Awakenings”) worked with a young man whose brain tumor had severely impaired his memory, the boy’s responses revolving around sixties rock and the slang of the time inspired Dr. Sacks to describe the young man as “The Last Hippie.”
This essay in Dr. Sacks’ book “An Anthropologist on Mars” inspired director Jim Kohlberg and screenwriters Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks to create their film “The Music Never Stopped.” While drawing on the analysis and experience of Dr. Sacks with his patient, the film is a story taking place, as all stories must, over a shorter period of time than the facts of the real patient and his family. The director and writers have given us a quiet film with simple, real characters. “The Music Never Stopped” allows us to know Gabriel Sawyer, his father Henry and his mother Helen as they reacquaint themselves after an estrangement of almost twenty years.
The film tells the story of a man’s memory, its lapses and lacks, its vagaries and weaknesses, and surprising strengths. Back in 1968, Gabriel was a teenage boy, in a band, possibly in love, whose friend and bandmate had just received his letter from the government, and his number (112). At the height of Gabriel’s feelings about the Vietnam War, he clashes with his father’s feelings about protesters and rock music. Their inevitable argument escalates, and Gabriel leaves home to live his musical dream in Greenwich Village. Not an unusual story to this point. The Sawyers don’t hear from their son again until 1986, when he is found with a debilitating brain tumor and irretrievable memory loss. That no one will ever know any more about Gabriel’s life between 1970 and 1986 is known from the outset, and yet we hang onto every word, every moment, hoping against hope that somehow the Gabriel his parents once knew will reappear.
Part of the total willingness to wait this out is J.K. Simmons, here playing Gabriel’s father Henry Sawyer. I recognized Henry Sawyer. He was of the “Great” generation, he hated rock music, he hated the war protestors, he had worked hard for his American dream and couldn’t understand those who didn’t appreciate the status quo and sacrifice, having served in one war himself, and lost a brother to another. In essence, though, he was the father of a teenager. Simmons is pitch perfect here, every grimace, every smile, every repressed emotion was on target. He’s one of those character actors we know very well long before we know his name -- the father in “Juno,” Will Pope in “The Closer” TV series, a psychiatrist on at least two iterations of “Law & Order,” among many, many others. You know him when you see him, which can doubtless be said of several actors in this film, like Cara Seymour as Gabriel’s mother Helen – she also played Carey Mulligan’s mother in “An Education.” Here (as then!) she is wonderful, strong, often silent, and standing and speaking up when it’s time.
The music that is a part of Gabriel is also a part of the audience that surrounded me when I saw the film. It is “our” music just as the ballads and waltzes of the forties and fifties was the music of Gabriel’s parents. We had the same arguments about music and politics that the Sawyers had. “We” are older than the demographic Hollywood films generally aim at, but I tend to think that every generation has the music argument – to the parents, whatever the younger generation likes is just “loud.”
The music is all important here – Gabriel is not communicative even after the tumor is removed from his brain, and his father reads whatever he can find searching for help. He finds it in the person of Dianne Daly, a music therapist played with sweetness and strength by Julia Ormond. Dianne explores what’s left of Gabriel’s memory with music, discovering his love of sixties rock – the Beatles, Cream, Dylan, and most particularly the Grateful Dead. Gabriel is so set in that time that he is unaware that certain of his musical icons have been dead for years. But when he is informed of such facts, he cannot retain the new memories for more than a few minutes.
Despite his detestation of the music his son loved, Henry educates himself on rock music of the sixties so he can talk to Gabriel. The past is revived when no future is possible. This is not a long film, and it is not overpopulated with characters, so each scene is carefully crafted and carved out of life – Gabriel talking to his father about the music, about Vietnam, Gabriel developing a crush on the girl who serves him lunch in the café; Henry and Helen remembering the past differently until Helen reminds him that his memory is not the only memory of any given moment. Helen, the mother, as usual stuck in the middle in the 1980s as in the 1960s, always the inner strength of the family.
The highlight of the film is Henry’s determination to win tickets to a Grateful Dead concert, so he’s always listening to the rock radio stations, even in his hospital bed after he’s suffered a heart attack. The journey that brings father and son in tie-dyed T-shirts to a Dead concert is bumpy and real, making the joy of connection even greater when Gabriel finally does form that new memory of learning a "new" Grateful Dead song along with his father.
Everyone in this film shines, but most notable are Simmons and Seymour noted above; Lou Taylor Pucci as Gabriel, ever a child, emotional, always seemingly just a little bit stoned; Mia Maestro, charming as Celia, a kind server in the café of the rehab facility on whom Gabriel develops a crush; and Scott Adsit as the rather dour Doctor Biscow who gives only bad news on Gabriel.
“The Music Never Stopped” is low-key and heartfelt, sweet and sensitive. The soundtrack is dynamic and includes the Beatles, Crosby Stills & Nash, Bob Dylan, and more in addition to, obviously, the Grateful Dead. While the film was apparently a favorite at Sundance, I’m guessing its distribution is limited, so get out there and see it now.~ Molly Matera, turning off the computer but neither the light nor the stereo….