The Music Never Stopped (2011) - Can't Stop the Movies
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The Music Never Stopped (2011)

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There's a large list of crimes that no movie critic should ever commit, but two of the biggest are

  1. If you're going to review a movie, finish the movie because it's a single piece of art.
  2. For the benefit of everyone involved (since no movie is made easily) don't just fast forward through and please watch it at the intended speed.

The first half of The Music Never Stopped severely tested my commitment to keeping the law upheld.  The second half reminded me of why those rules are so important because you may miss out on the chance to be genuinely touched in a way you didn't expect.  This, by no means, redeemed the first half of Music but it at least perked the rating up a tad.

Part of the reason the first fifty minutes is such a slog is because Music's plot relies on the tired cliche of over-sentimentalizing mental illness.  For Music, this means the reappearance of Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) into the lives of his parents Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour).  It's back in the 1980's, and Gabriel disappeared shortly after fleeing his incredibly loving parents in a fit of young idiocy and comes back with a tumor that has wiped out his ability to make new long-term memories.

Soap opera plot aside, this is greeted with some of the most blandest acting I thought possible from the principal cast members.  Doctors and nurses bleat out expository dialogue to the few members of the audience who are unaware what tumors are or us normal folks are able to remember things.  This struck me as terribly condescending and it does not help that until a crucial break in Gabriel's treatment his parents are reacting to his illness as though he is overacting after stubbing his toe.

It's a shame that J.K. sleepwalks through so much of the film as he is tremendous when he finally let's loose.

But the movie slowly comes to life as Gabriel begins to slowly remember who he is through music.  Henry used to test him all the time about composers and songwriters, leaving young Gabriel associating most of his life to specific tunes.  So more expository dialogue about treatments is doled out as an experimental music therapist (Julia Ormond, fueling her performance with the blandest Midwest sensibility possible) is brought into the Sawyer's lives to help try and piece Gabriel back together.  Father slowly gets to spend time bonding with son all over again through The Grateful Dead, Buffalo Springfield, and any number of hippie rock bands I only tolerate.

Unlike a film that remembers old times with genuine pain (like Richard Linklater's Dazed and Confused), Music is pretty much content in whitewashing too much of the pain during the Vietnam War in spite of Gabriel's objections.  The direction by Jim Kohlberg is not capable of generating any emotional response save boredom because he graduated from the Kevin Smith school of direction with a minor in confusing cross generational editing.  The film jumps back and forth through time with so little thematic importance (unlike, say, any film by Atom Egoyan) that the scenes in the past (where we see J.K. wearing several ridiculous wigs) kill any momentum in the present bonding between Henry and Gabriel.

Kohlberg is, at the very least, remarkable at getting every single reaction shot that Cara Seymour must have filmed into the final cut of this film.  She barely has anything to contribute as is, her only subplot starts off as a silly "Aw man, a woman's going to work in a factory, isn't that weird?" and ends with her head bouncing between whoever is talking in the room.  Between Kohlberg's driven desire to get all these reaction shots, his terrible mishandling of time, forgotten subplots and the general lack of involvement by any of the cast I was set to hate this movie.

The dialogue is as direct and broadly written as this note here. It's just as interesting to read as it is listen to.

But it does get better, almost remarkably so.  As Gabriel begins to heal and remember his past Henry joins him in listening to Gabriel's favorite albums and just listens to his son.  This leads to a remarkable set of scenes where Gabriel's own stance against time forces everyone to recall the points in their lives where they wished they could have just put things on hold.  There is aching clarity in the moment where Gabriel tells his dad how he lost his virginity and then meeting the girl later on, in a scene that could have been cruelly manipulative had it not been so alive with Gabriel's hopes for rekindled romance.

The movie finally comes in life just in time for J.K. to tune his performance back into a great range.  Through his influence, Lou Taylor Pucci finally makes his mental illness seem less like a quirk and more a legitimate stumbling block for a well-meaning young man.  Sadly there's only so much one excellent performance can do and poor Scott Adsit, as Doctor Biscow, fares off the worst of all as he tries desperately to wring any kind of honesty out of painfully obvious dialogue like "A coronary patient escorting an amnesiac to a Grateful Dead concert?"  Though that is just another example of how bluntly put together the whole movie is.

If anything, The Music Never Stopped serves as an excellent reminder that a film that puts its heart on its sleeve is far different that a distantly assembled nostalgia machine.  That clearly wasn't the attempt, as those few moments would not have affected me as they did.  But the only clear winner here is the soundtrack, and that is not the impression a movie should leave as I fall asleep tonight.

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The Music Never Stopped (2011)

Starring J.K. Simmons and Lou Taylor Pucci.
Directed by Jim Kohlberg.
Screenplay by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks.
Based on the essay, "The Last Hippie", by Oliver Sacks.

Posted by Andrew

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