The Music Never Stopped isn't exactly good, but it's definitely better than you fear it is when you reach the halfway mark. Basing their film on a nonfiction book by Dr. Oliver Sacks (who also penned Awakenings, another sentimental weepie paring grey matter with black and white characters), director Jim Kohlberg and writers Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks have created a film that has the look, moral centre and structure of a Lifetime Movie, or maybe a particularly benign episode of House. Timing is everything though, and thanks to recent and very tragic events in Arizona, and a bullet fired into the forehead of a US Congresswoman, the brain is on our minds these days. Expect distributor Roadside Attractions to find a small but passionate following for The Music Never Stopped before the film reawakens and finds its second life in the home market, where it belongs.
In a choppy opening that means to drop the viewer into the middle of a dysfunctional family without a roadmap, we meet the Sawyers: old school conservative pop Henry (veteran character man J. K. Simmons), housewife Helen (Cara Seymour) and prodigal son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), who has just turned up in a hospital after nearly twenty years away from home. It's 1986, and the Sawyers haven't seen Gabriel since the height of the Vietnam era, when he ran away to "play music in the Village," like so many boomer youths. Most came home with an acid hangover, an STD and a very bad credit rating. But Gabriel is special: he's returned to mom and dad's suburban world with what might be called the Memento disorder: a benign brain tumor which, when removed, leaves him in a borderline vegetative state, brought about by his inability to form new short term memories.
We're in the midst of a standard recuperation drama for much of what follows, but there is a unique slant in all of this: Gabriel's deep love of the music of the late sixties becomes a key to unlocking his past, bringing him back to his parents in telegraphic glimpses, but also forcing his family to relive the domestic strife that broke them apart. Almost the only memories Gabriel has access to are from 1964 through 1970—the exact American career timeline for The Beatles—but they aren't memories to Gabriel, they're current events. The film is smart enough to understand the tricky but inherently touching possibilities in a set-up like that: a broken home compelled by a bizarre medical predicament to relive its mistakes, and rectify them this time.
If The Music Never Stopped was fictional, it would be tempting to see Gabriel as a metaphor for the acid casualties and deadheads we all still run into from time to time—a case of arrested development externalized as a mutation of brain tissue. His story isn't the most compelling one in the film though. It's Henry, played with great warmth and subtlety by Simmons, who proves the human center of this story, and Simmons is utterly believable as he transitions from alpha male antagonist to concerned parent in careful and believable gradations that are moving and true. Henry's willingness to make due with the part of his son that's still available to him becomes both the movie's message and its heart, and will surely bring a tear or two to the more receptive kind of viewer. Which is exactly what a good Lifetime movie ought to do.
Distributor: Roadside Attractions
Cast: J.K. Simmons, Cara Seymour, Lou Taylor Pucci and Julia Ormond
Director: Jim Kohlberg
Screenwriters: Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks
Producers: Julie W. Knoll, Jim Kohlberg, Peter Newman and Greg Johnson
Running time: 105 min
Release date: TBD