Jim Kohlberg doesn’t deliver your average tearjerker with The Music Never Stopped. No, not just because it was powerful enough that I texted my dad “I love you” afterwards, because it’s visceral and funny and directs a punch straight to the gut of anyone who’s ever resonated with any kind of music, ever.
Estranged father and son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) and Henry Sawyer (J.K. Simmons) reconnect after the removal of a tumor leaves Gabriel with permanent brain damage. Unsure of who he is and unable to form new memories Gabriel is a resigned, nearly catatonic resident of a long term care facility whose days are guided by the note reminding him his father visits daily at 10 a.m. tacked to his bedroom wall.
Henry enlists a music therapist (Julia Ormond) to work with his son. Together they listen to records from the only period of time Gabriel remembers: 1964-1970. She patiently listens to him retell the story of the Dead show he never made it to. His relationship with his father had been severed when, impassioned in the wake of his bandmate’s receipt of a draft letter, Gabriel turned his band’s concert into an anti-war demonstration. Henry interpreted the action as an affront to his own military service and the memory of his brother who was killed in action, and Gabriel ran away to Greenwich Village. Where the audience could really start to hate Henry for his myopia, Jim Kohlberg does an above-average job making this less a case of “parents just don’t understand” and more of a sympathetic interpretation of the time’s generation gap. At first bitter about the music he thinks “poisoned” his formerly straight-laced son, Henry’s earnest love wins out and the two form new bonds over the Grateful Dead’s music.
Kohlberg also, thankfully, knows how to do humor. In a lot of ways The Music Never Stopped could have been subtitled The Amnesiac Hippie Who Never Lost His Swag. The surgery that left Gabriel without a memory also damaged the part of his brain that controls impulse, leaving him hilariously uninhibited and the audience with some relief from the gravity of the story. Flirting with a cafeteria worker (though he can’t remember he used the same line on her yesterday) you can tell the guy’s still got moves.
It’s a given that audiophiles will love this movie, but the tumultuous relationship between Gabriel and Henry will still tug at the heartstrings of those who associate the name “Pigpen” with the Peanuts character. And in either case, it’s worth the ticket price to see dad archetype J.K. Simmons cloaked in head-to-toe Deadhead garb.