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Music Never Stopped, The
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by Jay Seaver

"A familiar face plays the lead in a familiar story."
3 stars

As near as I can tell, J.K. Simmons has never had a starring role in the movies or on television. He's been part of ensembles, and stolen scenes in supporting parts, but being the first guy listed in the credits here seems to be a first for him. As might be expected, he's up to the job, although there are times when the rest of the movie isn't quite up to his standard.

Simmons plays Henry Sawyer, who when the film opens in 1986 receives a surprising phone call - his son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) is in the hospital. It looks like he's been living on the street - neither Henry nor his wife Helen (Cara Seymour) has seen him in nearly twenty years - and the diagnosis is not good: A tumor has spread throughout Gabriel's brain, and even once it's removed, his memory is severely damaged. When Gabriel seems to respond to music, Henry looks for someone who can build on that, coming up with Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond). Of course, Gabriel regaining his memory is a double-edged sword, as it forces to Sawyers to confront just why Gabriel left home to begin with.

The connection between music and memory is made early, in flashback scenes featuring Gabriel as a five-year-old played by Max Anitsell. It's an obvious but canny move, in that it works to establish this sort of musical therapy as not a miracle cure, but something that Gabriel (and, for that matter, Henry) might respond to particularly well. It also demonstrates what a changeable and context-dependent thing memory itself can be. In many ways, it's a much more effective way of getting the point across than when music actually jolts Gabriel out of his fugue and he starts going on about why certain Grateful Dead songs are so brilliant - after all, musical know-it-alls can be annoying even when they are miraculous.

There's a lot of good material in the flashbacks, actually, leading up to the day when things between the teenage Gabriel and Henry hit the boiling point. It's a nice portrayal of the generational tensions in 1968, with both Simmons's square father and Pucci's long-hair son portrayed as reasonable people. Pucci's at his best during these scenes, passionate but naive, with an undercurrent of righteous anger to go alongside his love of music. It's something the older Gabriel is missing, even when the music has him thinking more clearly; with rare exceptions, Pucci's performance there is mostly a collection of familiar childlike tics.

Simmons makes his scenes work, though. The early scenes, as Henry learns about Gabriel and his condition, are about delivering the right balance of stoicism and despair at any given moment, and while much of the rest of the time he's playing the model of a square, he also shows us that this man has the potential to be open-minded and flexible. Writers Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks (working from an essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks) mention that Henry is a mechanical engineer early on, but it's not just to give him a nerdy job to contrast with his free-spirited son; it presents him as a pragmatic, problem-solving individual. His later scenes, when he gets to do some funny fish-out-of-water stuff while also handling a weird situation are especially good.

The women in the picture don't get quite so fleshed out - Cara Seymour and Julia Ormond are there to connect emotionally and struggle with Henry's stubbornness, while Tammy Blanchard and Mia Maestro are the girls Gabriel falls for in the past and the present (respectively). Director/producer Jim Kohlberg mostly keeps things in familiar territory, with a lot of the standard beats for this sort of family drama. There's an inescapable disease-of-the-week vibe to it, to the point where it's kind of surprising that the movie is playing theaters; television seems to be its natural home, although broadcast networks don't do this sort of thing any more and cable channels probably wouldn't spend the money for the music rights.

That's not a negative in and of itself - when the credits role, those standard beats will have done their job. The audience's with a more direct combination to the music may get a bit more out of it, but even for those who don't have that immediate hook, it's a decent story, ably told.

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originally posted: 04/05/11 04:32:54
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2011 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2011 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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  18-Mar-2011 (PG)
  DVD: 02-Aug-2011


  DVD: 02-Aug-2011

Directed by
  Jim Kohlberg

Written by
  Gwyn Lurie
  Gary Marks

  J.K. Simmons
  Julia Ormond
  Cara Seymour
  Lou Taylor Pucci
  Mia Maestro

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