Title: The Music Never Stopped
Genre: Drama, Music
Director: Jim Kohlberg
Screenwriters: Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks
Starring: Lou Taylor Pucci, J.K. Simmons, Julia Ormond
It’s true that great actors can elevate mediocre material, but it’s equally true that watching them try can be painful. In The Music Never Stopped fans of overbearing indie quirk can watch J.K. Simmons, Cara Seymour, and Lou Taylor Pucci — three supremely talented actors — plod their way through an insufferable alloy of Little Miss Sunshine, The Lookout and, god help me, Awakenings. It’s not like watching a world-class orchestra play “Mary Had a Little Lamb”; it’s like watching them try to play an unfamiliar piece of Mozart where someone’s sabotaged the sheet music.
If you insist on watching this inexplicable Sundance favorite, you should know ahead of time that it is a therapy movie. Unhappy mechanical engineer Henry Sawyer (Simmons) is informed that his son Gabriel (Pucci) — whom Henry drove away as a teenager, and who hasn’t been in contact since — has turned up at a local hospital, age 35, with a massive brain tumor. The tumor is removed, along with the parts of Gabriel’s brain that are responsible for forming new short-term memories. Henry and his wife Helen (Seymour) are left to try to forge a new bond with their now-institutionalized adult son, whose only memories of his parents are bitter and hateful.
Sounds interesting, doesn’t it? It does! Unfortunately, while The Music Never Stopped contains at least two separate movies, neither of them is the one you want to see.
The first is the therapy movie: Henry and Helen hire an unconventional psychiatrist (Julia Ormond) to try to trigger some of Gabriel’s memories by playing him songs that have figured in important ways throughout his life. On screen, this is precisely as boring as it sounds. It’s The King’s Speech without Geoffrey Rush’s fiery personality or snappy back-and-forth with his patient. Julia Ormond’s music therapist seems like a very nice lady, but she’s never anything more; as Gabriel, Lou Taylor Pucci can do little more than snap into and out of catatonia at the screenplay’s behest. Therapy scenes are always dangerous business, since whatever their superficial appeal, they threaten to spell out the characters’ inner lives. Here, there isn’t even any superficial appeal; just so much tedium.
The second movie is the one where J.K. Simmons’ repressed geezer learns to love the Grateful Dead, and thereby reconnects with his estranged son. The Dead were a point of contention between Henry and young Gabriel, you see, culminating in the latter running away from home after being forced to miss a concert. (We see this in a series of flashbacks that should have been the heart of the film, but instead adopt an inexplicably jokey, those-damn-kids-and-their-rock-music tone.) Will Howard learn to stop worrying, don a tie-dye headband, and love the rock and roll? If that question keeps you up at night, then you’re in this movie’s demographic, since it’s the only question it even attempts to answer, in the most facile possible way.
There are other anodyne digressions, such as a chaste dalliance with the mental hospital cafeteria girl (Mia Maestro), who you’d think would be wary of fraternizing with the patients. The climax is, of course, a Grateful Dead concert. The Music Never Stopped is meant to be about the soundtrack of our lives, and music as a form of connection. But it traffics only in cliches and screenwriting shortcuts. It’s a well-intentioned little indie, hard to hate, but I managed it anyway.