Jim Kohlberg’s ‘The Music Never Stops’ is a sweet love letter to the music of the 1960s and early 70s wrapped in a story about a father and his long estranged son reconnecting over the very thing that split them apart so long ago. It is also a story of one of the most bizzare cases of amnesia in recent medical history. The case is based on a true story originally told in the essay entitled ‘The Last Hippie’ by Oliver Sacks. The time is the late 1980s, and Gabriel Sawyer, a child of the sixties who ran away from home some twenty years prior, has been found and diagnosed with a severe brain tumor that leaves him unable to make any new memories. His memory cuts off sometime around 1970 we are told, whether or not he had a family of his own or what he did with his missing years is never disclosed. He is trapped in a prison of adolescence. To him Vietnam is still forevor raging, Jimi Hendrix and Janis Joplin are as alive as you and me, and Richard E. Nixon sits comfortably in the Oval Office, yet to be impeached, that impeccable symbol of corruption and total abuse of power, and his dad, Henry, (played by JK Simmons) is still sitting in his easy chair listening to Bob Hope and Bing Crosby and decrying that horrible culture corrupting noise those long haired weirdos all seem to love so much nowadays. Well, he’s right about the last part of that anyway.
Gabriel spends most of his time in a not quite, but almost completely catatonic state. He can listen to and answer simple direct questions, although following along for a longer one is out of his reach normally, and he does follow a daily routine with the aid of notes and whatnot. He is not retarded, by any stretch of the imagination, and he is painfully aware of his condition, as displayed in many scenes where he jokes with his doctors and family such as when his father, after spending a late night with his son remarks that he cannot remember the last time he had stayed up so late, to which Gabriel quips “Me neither”.. Lou Taylor Pucci plays Gabriel, and does a wonderful job of making him more than just a cliché from the sixties (although he most certainly is that), or a cliché from your stand “amnesia” movie where all it takes to heal from a serious ilness such as this is a good bop to the head sometime around the hour and a half mark.
It is discovered that Gabriel can come out of his ‘shell’ only when musical numbers he recognizes are playing. When his mother asks if he wants a Coke, he replies “it’s the real thing”, because earlier he had seen the commercial on TV. Thus the only thing that jars any spark in his mind seems to be the power of music, and he literally appears to go from a person under heavy sedation to a lively, passionate, and energetic young man during these sequences when he is allowed to listen to said music. Noticing this quirk his father looks into the idea of ‘Music Therapy’ and enlists the help of a female therapist who specializes in such treatments. At first little success is found, due to the fact his father chooses to play only the music that he connects with that he introduced his son to in his childhood years, stuff like the aforementioned music from the 1940s that his generation swooned to. But when the therapist puts on a Beatles record that Gabriel recognizes, Henry notices something, his son is back, and he can finally have a conversation with him at long last.
As you can imagine, a whole lot of music is played in these therapy sessions, and Henry himself, excited by the prospect of being able to once again connect with his son goes to old record stores and buys up all the albums by Grateful Dead and other groups that his son would remember. If you are not a fan of this kind of music it will probably influence, somewhat anyway, your overall enjoyment of this movie. Speaking for myself, as a kid who grew up listening to music by many of the same artists featured in this film, that was already way past its popular expiration date in lieu of the then current crop of overly packaged fluff popularized by MTV back when they still played at least a little music… if you could still call it that at that point. This is a movie where the characters are listening to their own soundtrack, and in a way that soundtrack kind of is the movie. If you’re familiar with the era, you won’t be surprised to see the kind of artists who pop up here. Everyone from the Beatles to the Stones, Dylan and The Grateful Dead (who take preeminence rather quickly) and a scattering of others are all featured. The producers here really spared no expense when it came to the soundtrack here at least.
This is the kind of movie that may not be for everyone, but it most certainly was for me. Admittedly it’s a little on the ‘Lifetime Movie of the Week’ side of things as far as the heavy handed emotional manipulation goes, but its elevated beyond that by a very talented cast and a really touching story where on the plus side, nobody gets raped at least.
Finally, it is absolutely great to get to see JK Simmons, one of the finest and most underused actors of his generation finally get a major staring role, even if it’s not in some big time blockbuster. I’ve always just seen him in little snippets and supporting roles, like the dad spot in Juno or the CIA director in ‘Burn After Reading’ and so on, but here the spotlight is on him and he shines throughout, as does everyone in the film for that matter, from the mother to the therapist, there were no unlikable or unrealistic characters to be found here, which is refreshing.
The Music Never Stopped gets a three out of five: SATISFYING.