Monday, March 28, 2011

The Music Never Stopped

Music is a powerful thing. The right song can make you feel happy, sad, pumped, or relaxed, but is there more to it than that?What effects can music actually have on the brain? What connections does it form to our memories? This is the question explored in Jim Kohlberg's directorial debut, “The Music Never Stopped”.

Set in the 1980's, the film opens with a phone call. To Helen (Cara Seymour: “The Notorious Bettie Page”) and Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons: “Oz” “Spider-Man”); their son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), whom they have not seen in a very long time, is in the hospital. It turns out that Gabriel has a large brain tumor, and while it can be removed safely, it has caused a significant amount of permanent damage to his brain.

Gabriel's Doctor (Scott Adsit: “30 Rock”) explains to the Sawyers that Gabriel may never be himself again, and that, amongst the other damaged parts of his brain, he has lost the part that allows him to remember new information. In fact, for the most part, Gabriel is in a near vegetative state most of the time. Then one night when he shocks the hell out of all the nurses by starting to play his old trumpet after listening to a song on the radio.

Helen and Henry are excited by this, but the doctor assures them that it doesn't mean anything. Henry is still curious though, and while doing research on brain injuries he comes across an article by therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond: “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button”) about a connection between music and the brain.

Daley is interested in Gabriel's case, and starts playing music for him; first what he was playing on the trumpet, and then songs that Henry played for him as a child. There's a definite reaction, but it doesn't bring him back like whatever he heard on the radio did. One night, quite by accident, Daley realizes what the problem is. The music that stirs him is not the music his father exposed him to as a child, but the music he loved in his teenage years. Unfortunately it is that very music that led to the split between Gabriel and his father in the first place, or at least that's how Henry sees it.

“The Music Never Stopped” is based on the essay “The Last Hippie” by Dr. Oliver Sacks. If that name sparks any familiarity with you at all, it is possibly because his writing was also the basis of 1990's Oscar nominated “Awakenings”. The two films share a similar subject matter, a sense of bittersweet hope, and a good dose of dark humour, but are otherwise both quite different. “Awakenings” feels like it has a strong sense of forward motion throughout, as where this movie just flows in whatever direction the music happens to take it.

Ultimately it's the music that is the heart and soul of this film, from the the music Gabriel's father exposed him to as a child, like Peggy Lee and Count Basie, to the music he came to love in his teenage years, like The Beatles, Steppenwolf, and especially The Grateful Dead. Music is as much of a character in this film as any of the actors, and it is easily what moves the rather meandering tale forward. The film's soundtrack triggers flashbacks to explain how Gabriel came to love music to begin with, how he split off from his parents, and ultimately it becomes Henry's only hope of ever truly re-connecting with his injured son.

I said that the movie meanders, and it does. It's never dull, but at times it does seem aimless as it paints a picture of Gabriel's life before he left home and after he returns. It doesn't help that there are characters like Celia (Mia Masestro: “Alias”), a serving girl at the hospital cafeteria, and Tamara (Tammy Blanchard: “Guiding Light”), Gabriel's high school girlfriend, who seem like they should be really important characters, but ultimately have little or no real effect on the story. It's almost as if the screenwriters didn't know where they wanted the story to actually end until about two thirds of the way through which creates something which is not exactly a shaggy dog story, but has subplots which could easily be described as such.

The cast is an interesting choice. For me, this is the first time seeing J.K. Simmons in a real leading role, and he carries it off well; maybe after this I will be able to look at him and not immediately think of him as Vern Schillinger (probably not though). Ormond and Seymour bring their characters to life well, and it was very interesting to see Scott Adsit in a serious role, but it's the choice Lou Taylor Pucci as Gabriel that is most interesting.

Pucci plays Gabriel as both a teenager and an adult, and while he easily looks the part of a high school senior, making him look like someone who should be in the latter half of their thirties is a little more difficult (Pucci himself is still in his mid-twenties). In order to try and create a big difference in appearance between his teen self and his adult self, they have him in this rather ridiculous looking beard; I don't know if it was fake or not, but it sure looked fake. Between his youthful physical appearance, and the fact that due to his injury he still acts like a teenager, I had to repeatedly remind myself how old he is supposed to be. His performance as Gabriel feels spot on, but perhaps they could have put the beginnings of some gray into his hair to make him look like someone within spitting distance of their 40's.

While this is not necessarily one of those movies you should rush out and see right away, it is certainly one that you should see at some point in your life. It's well acted, has a really strong soundtrack, and manages to be funny and uplifting at the same time as being sad. It will try to make you cry, but it will try to make you laugh a lot more. So why not go see something with a little actual value? At the very least when someone asks what movies you've seen lately, you'll be able to come up with a better answer than “Hall Pass”.

“The Music Never Stopped” is in limited release now.

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