I’m not sure if I’ll use this space to comment on every FILM that I see this year, but I did want to write some thoughts about last night’s 4th film of the year, The Music Never Stopped. I caught a sneak preview of this movie before it enters general release on March 18th. Apparently, it was a hit at the Sundance Film Festival just one month ago.
In many ways, this film is an American The King’s Speech, with Geoffrey Rush’s speech therapist character split into two roles, one as a New York City music therapist, played by Julia Ormond, and the other as the main character’s father, played by the excellent actor JK Simmons in a rare (and well deserved) leading performance. They both care for the main character, Gabriel, a brain tumor victim. Interestingly, the story is based on a real life case. The treatment was compiled by noted academic Oliver Sacks.
I’ll quote the distributor (Roadside Attractions) press release to describe the thoughtful plot:
“The Music Never Stopped,” based on the case study “The Last Hippie” by Dr. Oliver Sacks, M.D. (“Awakenings”), chronicles the journey of a father and son adjusting to cerebral trauma and a lifetime of missed opportunities. Through the music that embodied the generation gap of the 1960s, the film weaves the heartwarming progress of Henry and Gabriel.
With father and son on the opposite side of musical tastes as well as politics and the war in Vietnam, Gabriel disappears into the counterculture following a devastating confrontation with his father. The film opens nearly two decades later, when Henry and wife Helen (Cara Seymour) are told their son has been found wandering the streets of New York City. Gabriel has a brain tumor that has caused extensive brain damage, and needs immediate surgery. When he recovers, he is in a near-catatonic state, his brain damaged to the point that it cannot recall or create any long-term memories. Effectively, Gabriel still thinks he is in 1968.
After his operation, the extent of Gabriel’s condition is made clear: the tumor damaged the part of the brain that creates new memories. For Gabriel, past, present, and future are indistinguishable, and he still lives in the era of Vietnam, acid tests, and psychedelic music. Determined not to let their son slip away from them again, Henry and Helen vow to connect with Gabriel, who is barely able to communicate effectively. Unhappy with Gabriel’s progress, Henry researches brain injuries, which leads him to Dr. Diane Daly (Julia Ormond). She is a music therapist who has made progress with victims of brain tumors using music.
As Diane works more with Gabriel, she realizes that he seems to respond actively to the music of the psychedelic era – the Beatles, Bob Dylan, and particularly the Grateful Dead – which has a remarkable effect on Gabriel. He is able to have conversations and express himself, even though he is unaware the era of his music has long passed.
Henry can’t stand rock and roll – but he is determined to forge some memories and a new relationship with his son. While his own health fails, Henry begins his own pilgrimage through the bands of the sixties. As he learns the songs that animate his son’s soul, he indeed begins to form a most unusual but emotionally vibrant bond with the child he thought he had lost.
The synopsis makes the film sound more saccharine than it actually is. Some of the storytelling felt a bit rushed, as if elements of the plot were condensed to make room for other parts of the story. The director described a limited budget and 25 day shooting schedule, which may have affected the process, too.
I was particularly interested in the storytelling methods used in this film, especially around the music therapy segments. Amazingly, the producers secured usage rights to ALL major 1960’s band songs, most notably the Grateful Dead and Bob Dylan. The director shared that most artists had no hesitation to offer their songs for the project. The emotional arc of the story was equally honest in an unpretentious way, showing how the son character came alive through the music in the past and in the present.