Imagine going to sleep in 1969 and waking up in 1986, unaware of how much time has passed. Plenty of former hippies walked around in the mid-’80s acting like that’s what had happened, but “The Music Never Stopped” tells the remarkable true story of someone for whom it was almost literally true. It might be the sweetest, kindest movie about a brain tumor you’ve ever seen.
The tumor belongs to Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci), who left home in the late ’60s for the same reasons a lot of teenagers left home in the late ’60s: nobody understood him, Dad didn’t like his music or politics, his friends were going to Vietnam, etc. Now, nearly 20 years later, he has turned up in the hospital, his mind severely damaged by a long-untreated brain tumor. It’s the first time his parents have seen him since he stormed out of the house that night.
His parents, Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour), had no other children. Their lives have barely changed since Gabriel disappeared. Gabriel’s hasn’t either, albeit for a different reason: the tumor made it so he can’t form new memories, and hasn’t been able to since about 1970. Everything that has happened since then — to him, to the world — hasn’t registered.
This is a tragic way to be reunited with one’s only child, but it’s better than nothing. Gabriel is fully conscious and aware; he just can’t learn anything new. Living at a long-term care facility, he’s pleased to meet the beautiful cafeteria worker, Celia (Mia Maestro), for the first time every day. He knows Henry and Helen when they visit, but he can only talk about the past, which to him is very recent and to them is very far distant.
By chance, it is discovered that Gabriel really comes to life when he hears a song from his youth. When Gabriel was a little boy, he and Henry bonded over the music from Henry’s day. Gabriel’s growing up and choosing his own music — moving from Bing Crosby to the Grateful Dead — was one of the major conflicts in their relationship (a familiar scenario for Baby Boomers), and Henry has never quite gotten over it. But he wants to reconnect with his son. If that means listening to Bob Dylan records, so be it.
Henry finds a music therapist, Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond), who helps Gabriel use rock music to bring back old memories, working on the theory that perhaps music can help him form new ones, too. It’s easier to learn new information if it’s set to music, as the people at “Sesame Street” can tell you.
And so “The Music Never Stopped” is the story of a man reaching out to his son from across the generation gap. I readily admit that I am a sucker for such stories. The fact that this one is essentially true — it’s based on the book “The Last Hippie,” by Oliver Sacks (“Awakenings”) — gives it some additional weight.
But so does J.K. Simmons’ lead performance as Henry Sawyer. Remember how Richard Jenkins broke out a couple years ago in “The Visitor”? This should be that for Simmons. Everyone who has ever paid attention to him has loved his work as a character actor (he played Juno’s dad; he was the blustery newspaperman in the “Spider-Man” films), yet I believe this is the first time he’s had the leading role. And he nails it. His emotions are honest and unshowy, wholly believable, understated. Henry is not a terribly complicated character, but he’s real, and Simmons completely avoids the pitfall of playing a generic “you kids and your rock ‘n’ roll!” father. All fathers will see themselves in him.
Lou Taylor Pucci (“Thumbsucker,” “The Go-Getter”) is a familiar face in the indie world; in another life he might have been Joseph Gordon-Levitt. (In fact, Gordon-Levitt played a young man with a similar mental block in “The Lookout.”) Pucci is good, but he’s much more convincing in the ’60s flashback scenes than in the 1986 ones, where he’s supposed to be 35 years old and looks 20, and a beard is deployed to make up the difference.
The screenplay, by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks, is a little starry-eyed and over-simplified, and first-time director Jim Kohlberg can’t overcome those weaknesses. Yet part of me — most of me — thinks it doesn’t matter. This is the kind of warm, uncluttered, feel-good film that you take your parents to see, and I absolutely mean that in a good way.
B (1 hr., 45 min.; )