Parents of teenagers traditionally loathe the music their kids like. But what if your teenager disappeared, and playing that music magically brought him back? That's the premise of The Music Never Stopped, a poignant, funny film about a rebellious kid and his inflexible dad, and about music's inexplicable power.
The film is based on "The Last Hippie," an essay by Oliver Sacks. That fact gave me pause. Sacks is a wonderful writer, and he has a grand topic, the brain's miraculous tenacity, but I wasn't sure how a case study like "The Last Hippie" - a vignette, really - would translate into a feature entertainment.
Director Jim Kohlberg and screenwriters Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks expand the story by fleshing out the characters, and by making the film a parable of the 1960s. The team also substantially alters the clinical details of Sacks' story, which is ambiguous and sad. The Music Never Stopped is engineered to be inspirational.
The film begins in 1986, as Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour) receive welcome but terrible news. Their son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), who left home as a teenager in the tumult of the 1960s, has turned up. But he is in the hospital, and a benign brain tumor has left him largely unresponsive.
Then Dianne (Julia Ormond), a kindly music therapist, discovers something amazing. When she plays music by groups Gabriel loved - the Beatles, the Grateful Dead - he snaps into lucidity. I am moved by the way Pucci handles these transformations. He cocks his head quizzically at the opening strains of "All You Need Is Love," melts a little, and then chatters joyfully about Cream and the Rolling Stones.
The film is impressively knowledgeable about 1960s music, even as it pokes gentle fun at music obsessives. At one point Gabriel delivers a cogent analysis of the Dead's "Truckin'" to his uncomprehending father. "That's what that means?" asks Henry. Gabriel replies, slyly, "That's what that means when you're stoned."
In a sharp divergence from Sacks' story, Henry is ambivalent about Dianne's discovery - because he really hates 1960s rock music. He associates it with the strife that broke up his family and wonders why Gabe can't be revived by the Count Basie records father and son enjoyed together in the 1950s. Scenes from the 1950s and 1960s are shown in flashbacks.
I suppose this development rings slightly false. Surely Henry would be delighted to have his son back, no matter what. On the other hand, family members do have a remarkable capacity for holding on to old grudges.