There are a lot of things that can establish strong sense memories, but nothing more so than music. Everyone of you have, no doubt, songs and albums that remind you of a specific time, place and moment. A first dance, a last kiss, a family member’s passing. Billy Joel’s “She’s Always a Woman” will forever remind me of my first post-pubescent slow dance with a girl, an older girl who kindly and quietly ignored my involuntary physical expression of how much I was enjoying the dance. For many people, our memories would be less vivid and rewarding without the soundtrack to our lives. For Gabriel Sawyer, there would be no memories at all without the music of his youth.
Based on a real life patient of Dr. Oliver Sacks (written about in “The Last Hippie” in An Anthropologist on Mars), the thirty-five year old Gabe (Lou Taylor Pucci) survives an operation on a massive brain tumor with an inability to create new memories and an apparent loss of most of the memories that came before. Long separated from his parents, his mother Helen (Cara Seymour) and father Henry (J.K. Simmons) are left picking up the pieces, trying to cope with their estranged son who no longer even knows himself. Desperate for hope in a hopeless situation, Henry seeks out the help of Dr. Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond), a music therapist who specializes in the association between music and memory. And through her sessions, they come to realize that Gabe does, in fact, retain certain memories. When he hears the music he loved in his teens, his personality suddenly comes raging back and he can speak at length about when he first heard a song, what the lyrics mean to him, how this music led to his falling out with his parents, etc. The film cuts back and forth between the present (1986), and these memory moments (which, since Gabe is a child of the 60’s, means we’re talking about folks like the Beatles, Dylan and the Dead). While ostensibly about the bizarre condition of Gabe’s brain, The Music Never Stopped is really a character piece about a father learning how to connect with his son.
And Simmons is absolutely phenomenal in the role. A well-weathered chameleon equally capable of playing the evil that is Vern Schillinger or the understanding father of a preggo eggo, Simmons is one of the most underrated actors working, and The Music Never Stopped may be his best performance to date. The film walks a schmaltzy line at times, risking a fall into feel-good Oprah territory, but Simmons’ performance manages to keep it utterly grounded. He juggles his character’s frustration, anger, guilt, sadness and joy flawlessly, putting on a veritable acting clinic. Most of the other performances are good, though paling a bit in comparison, but Pucci is an unfortunate weak link (he should take a Simmons clinic, because much of his performance, whether quasi-catatonic or hippy-dippying to music feels a bit too much like a melodramatic acting class performance).
There’s more I could tell you about the story, but there’s really no point. Beyond the hook - the discovery of Gabe’s condition, the work that follows and the question of whether music can lead to Gabe retaining new memories - the major plot points are relatively predictable, particularly given the embellishments and liberties taken with Sacks’ original story. Nevertheless, newbie director Jim Kohlberg smoothly handles the back-and-forth timing of the exposition and manages to keep the pacing relatively tight. It is unforuntate, however, that the movie presumably blew its budget on the music rights, however, as they could have used some more money in the makeup department, when it comes to aging actors younger or older (Pucci’s wild man beard is particularly stagecrafty). The Music Never Stopped is not a great movie. But it’s a good movie with a performance by Simmons that is easily worth the price of admission.
The Music Never Stopped premiered at the 2011 Sundance Film Festival. This review is being republished because the movie is opening in limited release today