The Music Never Stopped is really a TV movie of the week, but it manages to work on levels above just an interesting disease. The performances sell the emotion and at a 9AM screening, my defenses were low enough that I even teared up.
Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci) has a brain tumor that itself is benign, but it’s grown so big that he’s lost the ability to make new memories. After 20 years of separation, his parents Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Cara (Helen Sawyer) are notified of his condition. Through research on microfiche (yeah, 1986!) Henry finds Dr. Daley (Julia Ormond), who has used music to assist amnesia patients.
So the idea is that music was so vital to Henry and Gabriel’s relationship that playing music brings Gabriel’s memories back. He can still only remember the past, but at least he’s not catatonic. That also includes the song that reminds him of the fight that led Gabriel to run away and Henry to get defensively bitter.
The film does a basic but easy to understand job of explaining the specifics of Gabriel’s condition. It also illustrates the issues in the Sawyer household. Henry is enthusiastic quizzing young Gabriel on music, but now Henry doesn’t even get the phone or get fresh milk anymore.
When Daley finds the right music for Gabriel, he talks passionately about bands. Slowly he’s able to continue talking after the music stops, though it still wavers and he still can’t create new memories. He’s able to hit on the cafeteria clerk, Celia (Mia Maestro), and actually be charming.
Henry blames rock music for corrupting his son, but it turns out Henry is denying blame for making Gabriel run away. Once Henry gets over that, Simmons is a powerhouse of character development. You really believe that he’s learning and coming around. It is touching to see a father and son connect, and there’s some mild The Notebook sting when Gabriel forgets immediately.
The political issues of the time are covered in a basic way: Flag burning protests, hippie bands, a family of war veterans pushing the straight and narrow path. The development of the characters shows a real human side of ideological feuds. By the time Gabriel learns that Nixon was actually impeached, Henry is putting his son above his own political views. The soundtrack is obviously great with The Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, The Beatles and every culturally significant group of the Vietnam War era.
Even at its most hopeful, there’s an underpinning of tragedy. Even when Gabriel is able to go home, visit his old girlfriend or make a new one, he still has to hear about sad news over and over, every time he forgets. Even if it’s not dead friends, just the fact that Gabriel has to ask the same questions over and over is sad. There’s humor, with Gabriel making self-deprecating remarks and Henry getting into The Dead, so it’s the total package of human emotion.
The Music Never Stopped gives you hope. If your brain ever fails, maybe something like music can give you a reprieve.