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Film Review: The Music Never Stopped

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When beginning a discussion of the new film The Music Never Stopped, one might be apt to say -- and with good reason -- that it is about a recovering mental patient and his love for the Grateful Dead. The story is based on a real life case study done by Oliver Sacks, the famous psychiatrist and neurologist best known for having been portrayed by Robin Williams in the movie Awakenings. "The Last Hippie" can be found in Sacks's book An Anthropologist on Mars and concerns a 38-year-old man living in the late 1980s whose memories of the past don't go much beyond 1970. He is mentally stuck in the psychedelic sixties, when he was a typical rebellious teenager with father issues and a visceral hatred for Richard Nixon.

At around the age of 19, Gabriel Sawyer, the fictional character in Jim Kohlberg's movie, contracted a large brain tumor that went undiagnosed for almost 20 years. Although it turned out be be benign, not cancerous, and was successfully removed, the tumor did irreparable damage to the young man's cognitive abilities. After his operation, he was confined to a hospital, and just about everybody gave up on the hope that he would ever lead anything approaching a normal life.

But The Music Never Stopped isn't really about Gabriel Sawyer. It is about his father, Henry Sawyer (portrayed brilliantly by veteran actor J.K. Simmons), who has been carrying a huge burden of guilt for two decades and so undertakes a life-changing psychological journey to be able to communicate with his estranged son. And, yes, the Grateful Dead play quite a large role in that journey. But the music doesn't start with them. Back in the fifties, Henry and Gabe often played a little game. A song would come on the radio, and this typical exchange would follow:

Dad: What song is this?
Son: "Till There Was You."
Dad: Year?
Son: 1950.
Dad: Composer?
Son: Meredith Willson.

And then Henry would explain to Gabriel why the song is important to him. In this case, the song represents a milestone in his personal life: it was playing at a dance when he saw his future wife, Gabriel's mother, for the first time. Henry wants his son to appreciate the song as much as he does. But it's an attempt at bonding that is doomed to fail. Gabriel will get older, and the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, and the Grateful Dead will replace Bing Crosby and his ilk in Gabriel's mental landscape. Do I need to say that Henry has no love for rock and roll?

But Henry is willing to meet his son halfway. Gabriel is in a high school rock band, and Mom and Dad attend his first gig. Dad is actually digging the music until the peace and love vibe gives way to politics. A local political radical (this is the late 60s, remember) burns an American flag and hands it to Gabriel, who proceeds to prance across the stage, waving the fiery symbol in protest against the Vietnam War. Henry's brother Gabriel, his son's namesake, died in World War II defending that very flag, and Henry is outraged that his son would desecrate it in such a cavalier way. A terrible argument ensues, and Gabe leaves home, never to return.

About twenty years later, Henry and his wife get a call from a hospital telling them that their son has been found homeless and completely disoriented. He is virtually catatonic. He just sits in a chair and stares straight ahead. But it is soon discovered that music works wonders with him. Play "All You Need Is Love" and Gabe becomes animated. "I love this song!" Play "Crossroads" and he names all the members of Cream and their musical specialties.

Music touches a place in our brains in a manner unlike anything else. The ancient Greeks were well aware of the power of the lyre and the pipes of Pan. The playwright William Congreve wrote in 1697 that "music hath charms to soothe a savage breast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak." Oliver Sacks said of his patient, "There seemed no doubt that some music could move him profoundly, could be a door to depths of feeling and meaning to which he normally had no access, and one felt [he] was a different person at these times" (An Anthropologist on Mars, p. 66).

Notice that Sacks said, "some music could move him profoundly." Henry hoped that his music -- the kind made by the likes of Bing Crosby, the kind he listened to with his son when Gabe was a little boy -- would draw Gabriel out of his shell. But Gabe loves the songs of another Crosby: David Crosby and his friends, Stills, Nash, and Young, and all the other great singers and songwriters of that 60s generation, especially the Grateful Dead. So Dad soon realizes that he has a problem. Bing Crosby won't cut it, and Henry doesn't even know that David Crosby exists.

Gabriel has not been able to make new memories since about 1970, so he doesn't know that Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Jimi Hendrix, and former Grateful Dead member Pigpen are dead. To Gabriel, a concert he saw in 1970 happened just last week. When he is told that his musical icons have passed away, he is sad for a few minutes, but then he forgets what he just heard, and they are alive once again. Hence, Gabriel is "the last hippie," trapped forever in the world of the late sixties when some of his friends are dying in Vietnam and the rest of them are taking drugs and tripping out to "Truckin'" and "Uncle John's Band." Since there is no way that Gabe can make his way into the present, Henry must go into the past -- Gabe's past, not his own -- if he hopes to communicate with his son in any meaningful way.

One of my favorite scenes in the film is the one where Henry walks into a second-hand record shop, carrying an old wooden box filled with his collection of "mint condition" LPs. He plops the box down on the counter, and the clerk begins to flip through its contents. "These are old," the clerk says. "Uh, yeah," says Henry. Instead of haggling over the potential value of the ancient disks, Henry asks the clerk if he can just trade his stuff for any music the store has that was recorded "after 1958 and is loud." The clerk responds, "Can you be a little more specific?"

This is a big step in Henry's life. He is abandoning the music he loves, the music he grew up with, the music that reminds him of the best times of his life, the music that makes him cry --he is trading it in for music he hates, that dreaded rock and roll, the music that, in Henry's mind, corrupted his son and led him down a path of rebellion that in turn led to devastating brain damage and almost total estrangement from the entire world. Why did Henry feel he had to get rid of the old records? Perhaps he was punishing himself, trying in some small way to assuage his guilt over forcing his son out of his life on the night of the flag-burning gig. Or maybe he realized he had to transform himself -- as much as reasonably possible -- into a rocker (and eventually a "Deadhead") to enter the mental space occupied by his son; and to accomplish this, the old records had to go.

Henry proceeds to immerse himself in Gabe's music. Sitting on his living room floor with record sleeves scattered all around him, Henry listens on a old phonograph to all the great bands and singers of the late sixties. And what do you know? He actually starts to like what he hears. He has accomplished a kind of paradigm shift, one that will lead him toward meeting his son again. Following the rest of Henry's journey makes The Music Never Stopped a moving and an inspiring cinematic experience. And it just might turn you into a Grateful Dead fan -- as it did me. In fact, I am listening to "Ripple" right now. No lie.

The film premieres in New York, Los Angeles, and other selected cities on Friday, March 18th, and goes wider on Friday, April 1st. Go see it. You'll love it.