Friday, April 1, 2011

The Music Never Stopped: What we do for love

The Music Never Stopped (2011) • View trailer for The Music Never Stopped
3.5 stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for thematic elements, mild profanity and brief drug references
By Derrick Bang

Many of our strongest memories, happy or sad, are amplified by songs: first date, first kiss, what played on the radio as some dreadful news was delivered.

Movies are all about the often crafty application of music. Sometimes only a few measures of main theme or underscore are necessary to revive scenes or even entire films: the ominous strings in Jaws; the Pink Panther theme; the opening fanfare in Star Wars; the horn blast and “heavy guitar” strum that accompanies the silhouette of James Bond, as he strolls and shoots toward the circular gun barrel. No doubt you have many of your own, and that’s the whole point; we all do.
Temporarily brought back to "himself" while listening to the music he loves,
Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) attempts to explain his passion about certain songs,
while his bemused father (J.K. Simmons) attempts to make sense of an entire
decade that he willfully ignored. Can this generational chasm be bridged?

The Music Never Stopped, a touching drama expanded from an actual case study, draws its juice from this premise: the notion that music touches us, all of us, in a manner that opens a window deeper into our souls. In most instances, this merely intensifies a relationship also built by conversation, trust, shared experience and time: the years we spend getting to know each other.

But what if music were the only means of establishing a new connective bridge, to replace those damaged by circumstance?

Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks’ screenplay is based on “The Last Hippie,” a case study from Dr. Oliver Sacks’ 1995 book, An Anthropologist on Mars. Sacks, a professor of neurology and psychiatry at Columbia University, also happens to be an accomplished storyteller; he has written numerous best-sellers, based on his work with various intriguing patients. Quite a few of these accounts have become memorable films or plays.

His 1973 book Awakenings was turned into an Academy Award-nominated film with Robin Williams and Robert De Niro; his 1985 collection, The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, became a must-read title. Temple Grandin, a professor with high-functioning autism, also is profiled in An Anthropologist on Mars; her story recently was dramatized in a Golden Globe-winning HBO film starring Claire Danes. 1999’s At First Sight, starring Val Kilmer and Mira Sorvino, also is drawn from one of Sacks’ essays.

“The Last Hippie” concerned a young man with devastating amnesia caused by a brain tumor. He could remember no new events in his life, but his recollection of music, specifically songs by the bands he adored in the 1960s, remained intact. In a very real sense, as Sacks noted, this young man had been marooned in the ’60s.

The Music Never Stopped, set in 1986, opens as Henry and Helen Sawyer (J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour) learn that their long-estranged son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), has been found wandering the streets of New York City. He has a dangerous brain tumor; surgery removes the ongoing threat but cannot repair the damage. When Gabriel recovers, he’s still in a near-catatonic state, his mind no longer able to create long-term memories or recall short-term events. In effect, every day — every conversation, no matter how many times it’s repeated — is a fresh experience.

This concept served as a springboard for the 2004 Adam Sandler/Drew Barrymore romantic comedy 50 First Dates, which concerns a commitment-shy guy who finally meets the girl of his dreams ... but she can’t remember him from one day to the next. In its own mildly clumsy manner, that film worked its way to a sweet resolution, without straying too far into areas of questionable taste.

Lurie and Marks add a back-story to their more serious screenplay here: the massive counter-cultural divide that has made strangers of Gabriel and his parents for nearly two decades. It’s the usual story: Henry is a hard-working, America-love-it-or-leave-it conservative who viewed the 1960s youth rebellion with growing alarm. In Henry’s mind, the rock bands, drug experimentation and free love conspired to seduce and “kidnap” the son who once, as a little boy, loved to share his father’s taste in music ... which stopped somewhere in the mid-’50s.

Henry simply couldn’t process the notion that Gabriel, genuinely moved by music to the same degree as his father, might have developed similar feelings for the songs and anthems of his own generation.

Director Jim Kohlberg doesn’t dwell on the flashbacks that establish the nature of this relationship between father and son, nor the crisis that destroys it; a few succinct scenes are sufficient to convey the necessary information.

But some of these details come later, for us (although, as we eventually learn, they’ve been preying on Henry’s mind ever since that terrible, fateful evening). For the moment, Henry and Helen are confronted by a grown son who can’t seem to engage, almost as if he lacks the desire to get better.

Henry does some research and is drawn to Dr. Dianne Daly (Julia Ormond), a therapist who has had intriguing results when approaching brain tumor patients with music. This speaks to Henry’s own perception of music’s power, and he eagerly supplies the record albums that he remembers sharing with his son. Dr. Daly plays the opening bars of “La Marseillaise” and is encouraged when Gabriel’s distant gaze snaps into focus ... but only briefly. She tries other LPs from the stack provided by Henry, with similar results: close ... but somehow not right.

Those of us who grew up in the 1960s will anticipate the approaching a-ha! moment, which finds Dr. Daly deep in research as The Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love” comes on the radio. She can’t get back to Gabriel quickly enough; when she plays that song, it’s like a switch has been thrown. Gabriel converses animatedly and intelligently, albeit — as Dr. Daly eventually charts — with no sense of anything that happened after roughly 1970 ... and no way to construct fresh memories of these breakthroughs.

At least, not initially.

Which brings us to the crux of this story, because Henry — rather than being pleased by these events — is aghast at the notion that this music is involved ... the very music that he blames for the initial estrangement of his son. And so Henry is faced with a choice: Can he change the very core of his being, in order to re-connect with his son?

It’s a powerful notion: We’d all love to believe that we possess the strength and self-awareness to face such a challenge, on behalf of a loved one.

Simmons, a character actor who’s all over the place these days — perhaps most notably as Kyra Sedgwick’s boss, on TV’s The Closer — is simply perfect as Henry. In a sense, this is a more serious riff on the befuddled parent Simmons played in Juno: utterly bemused by his only child’s behavior. But whereas Simmons’ character absolutely trusted his daughter in Juno, Henry starts with no such faith in Gabriel. Simmons’ bearing is withdrawn, hostile and borderline clinically depressed; his manner is gruff and unyielding. And yet we see, in his eyes, the glimmer of awareness and guilt; somewhere deep down, Henry knows that he’s at fault ... and it’s killing him.

At the same time, Simmons gets ample opportunity to flash his signature You-can't-be-serious gaze of eyebrow-raised cynical disbelief. His marvelously expressive features are a welcome relief at times, because this is a dour and emotionally grim story.

Ormond makes Dr. Daley vivacious, intelligent and creative. We’re never quite sure how the Sawyers can afford to have her on what appears to be permanent retainer, but we’re sure glad she’s on their side. Ormond truly sells the bonding moments with Gabriel; her excitement mirrors and amplifies our own.

Pucci does reasonably well with a tough part, credibly conveying utter emptiness that flickers into awareness, in a way that inevitably raises goose bumps. He also delivers his character’s occasionally mordant one-liners with just enough sauce; despite the gravity of his condition, Gabriel hasn’t lost his sense of humor, and some of his deadpan asides are so unexpected that they prompt our own spontaneous laughter.

Mia Maestro has a charming small part as a cafeteria worker at the care facility where Gabriel winds up. Tammy Blanchard, alternatively, remains underdeveloped as Tamara, once the first love of Gabriel’s life. And Seymour, despite delivering her one emotional scene with absolute conviction, is otherwise rather flat as Helen.

Actually, that’s a major problem in this film: It’s uniformly flat, bland and slow. Kohlberg has no sense of dramatic highs and lows; all his scenes are constructed and lensed with a dull and colorless sameness that echoes Gabriel’s initial condition. This is Kohlberg’s directing debut, and I have to say it shows; he simply isn’t up to the challenge. If you leave charmed and deeply moved by this saga, it’s despite Kohlberg’s efforts, not because of them. The degree to which this movie succeeds — and it does succeed — owes more to the story itself, and the strong performances by Simmons and Ormond.

Indeed, Simmons owns this film. Make no mistake: Gabriel isn’t the intended focus here; it’s Henry, and the question of whether he can rise to this most unusual occasion.

The soundtrack also works its own wonders, demonstrating the truth of music’s power (at least, to those who did come of age in the 1960s). This film boasts an amazing collection of pop anthems by Buffalo Springfield, The Beatles, Bob Dylan, Steppenwolf, The Rolling Stones and — most notably — The Grateful Dead. The latter is of particular significance, because after 15 years of therapy, Dr. Sacks arranged for his “Last Hippie” to meet drummer Mickey Hart and attend a Dead concert.

Kohlberg’s direction is weak, and Lurie and Marks’ script occasionally oversells the melodrama. But The Music Never Stopped remains a worthy effort nonetheless: a poignant little drama fueled by one strong actor’s ability to make us believe that love can induce change ... and that music does make the world go ’round.

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