The profound mysteries of the human brain and the healing power of music are the stuff of The Music Never Stopped, a mawkish but effective tearjerker that’ll have get both women and men misty-eyed. Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) came of age during the Summer of Love, after which he “dropped out” and disappeared from his parents’ lives. When he turns up again nearly twenty years later, he’s a changed man. To blame is a previously undiagnosed brain tumor, which has left Gabe with limited memories and a demonstrable inability to form any new ones. Gabe’s mother Helen (Cara Seymour of An Education) and father Henry (J.K. Simmons of Juno)—who ironically work for Polaroid—enlist in the Sisyphean task of getting through to their son.
The considerable strain further disrupts the Sawyers’ marriage, but a ray of hope emerges when Gabe responds to music. A former garage band lead man, Gabe lights up (“turns on,” if you will) when he hears music from his "Wonder Years": 1964-1970. The Beatles, The Stones, Dylan, and especially The Dead have the magical power to bring back the Gabe his father remembers. But they also help Henry to remember how the rift first developed with his son, who rejected his father’s politics and music. After recruiting a music therapist (Julia Ormond), Henry develops buyer’s remorse, telling her, “You’re using music to bring him back to a time he fell apart.” Still, though Henry is a “Der Bingle” man and Gabe a Deadhead, their mutual love of music offers a chance of tentative bonding.
Loosely based on the essay “The Last Hippie” by Oliver Sacks, The Music Never Stopped is largely can’t-miss material. Generation-gap issues and memorable associations with music are eminently relatable topics, and it’s not hard to read what’s ostensibly the story of an unusual medical case as a stealth Alzheimer’s movie, with one family member hoping against hope to get through to another who’s mentally compromised.
Unfortunately, director Jim Kohlberg and screenwriters Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks buff off most of the edges of the Sacks essay, mining it for the stuff of emotional uplift but ignoring anything that would make Gabe less than conventionally cuddly. At least they have an unassailable excuse to pack a soundtrack with classic tunes, and Simmons and Pucci take the material the rest of the way across the goal line, the former ably conveying the ups and downs of fatherhood in crisis and the latter embodying Gabe’s winsome charm and miswired disorientation.
By awkwardly foreshadowing its climactic one-two punch, the film needlessly emphasizes its narrative prosaicness, but perhaps the old ways are the best ways. The Music Never Stopped skews to fantasy over fact, but when it blinks at you with those puppy-dog eyes, just see if you don't sniffle.
[This review first appeared in Palo Alto Weekly.]