Director: Jim Kohlberg
Writers: Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks, Oliver Sacks
Stars: Lou Taylor Pucci, J.K. Simmons, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond
Cinematographer: Stephen Kazmierski
Studio: Roadside Attractions
Henry Sawyer’s son is a time machine. A time machine powered by music. And unexpectedly, Henry is offered a second chance to go back in time to fix what was broken.
The Music Never Stopped is a compelling feature-directing debut for Jim Kohlberg, whose previous work includes producing the critically acclaimed documentary Trumbo. Stopped, however, is a narrative feature that takes advantage of real-world events in a unique and personal way and visits the music of the 1960s, analyzing it vividly.
Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) wanders into the lives of his parents, Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour), after leaving home almost 20 years ago. When Gabriel left, he was angry with his father, who saw Gabriel’s interest in music as damaging. It wasn’t that Gabriel wanted to be a musician; it was that Henry didn’t like this choice of music—political, drug-infused rock and roll. But Gabriel’s return after a long absence is not a happy one. He’s been living on the streets, during which a brain tumor has grown so large that its necessary removal leaves him with the inability to make new memories. In fact, Gabriel’s memories of the past are limited to a time that ends in the early 1970s.
Gabriel’s recovery is painfully slow. He spends most of his days unresponsive and unable to carry on any meaningful form of conversation. But one night something extraordinary happens — the music of The Beatles awakens him from his stupor, if only for a short time. Seizing on that glimmer of hope, Henry undertakes his son’s cause, which means reliving past painful events that to Gabriel just happened yesterday.
Based on an essay entitled “The Last Hippie” by famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks, The Music Never Stopped will remind viewers of another Sacks project, 1990’s Awakenings. Focusing very personally as well as clinically on the workings of the brain and memory, Stopped shares the neurological mystery that made Awakenings such fascinating and inspiring viewing. And what’s even more remarkable is that Stopped is packaged with a rare PG rating.
The treatment of the music alone makes the movie worth seeing, but the sophisticated nature of the narrative builds well on the musical foundation. Compare Ang Lee’s meandering Taking Woodstock in which the music was there, but the story was lacking. In Stopped the music of 1960s, particularly that of The Grateful Dead serves as an integral corner piece for a personal, touching story. And the way the music of The Dead is used, especially in the film’s title, will enchant fans of the classic, long-traveling band. While it’s possible that that Dead purists will frown on a concert featuring the likeness of the late Jerry Garcia recreated in the film, the environment is actually very well captured. Of course, the music feels authentic. But the significance to Gabriel and Henry of the songs is what really matters and the story is so intertwined with them that the lyrics themselves become a part of the script. In one scene, Gabriel explains what he thinks Dylan is saying in “Desolation Row,” which was often performed by The Dead. And Gabriel’s take on “Truckin’” sure seems right on the spot. Few dramatic films have spent this much time turning songs over in as much detail.
Time travel has always been a passion of science fiction writers, but the device is often wasted, serving merely as a staging ground for action set pieces. The Music Never Stopped, however, makes time travel real. The trick is finding the fuel for the machine so that past wrongs can be addressed. Do you remember when you first heard The Grateful Dead? Maybe it’s another band, or something else, that provides the catalyst. Remember the past — time is behind us.
Jonathan W. Hickman is an entertainment attorney, novelist (The Taster), longtime film critic, and co-director of the 2009 political documentary feature, Crashing the Party. Episodes of his cable television show, The Film Fix, can be watched online at http://dailyfilmfix.com/