Does music have a transformative, even redemptive metaphysical power, beyond what modern medicine can imagine?
That’s the question posed by a heartwarming independent film called “The Music Never Stopped.”
Opening Friday and helmed by first-time director Jim Kohlberg, it is based on a real-life Oliver Sacks case study, and stars Lou Taylor Pucci as Gabriel Sawyer, a 1980s adult whose brain tumor — when removed — has essentially frozen him in his 1968 youth. He only comes alive when vinyl LPs from that era are playing.
Big-screen Everydad J.K. Simmons (“Juno”) plays Gabriel’s conflicted father Henry Sawyer, who believes said hippie music destroyed their relationship two decades earlier.
“I always knew that music could pull you out of a down mood or a depressive period,” says Kohlberg, 52, a film producer who, once he read the script known around Hollywood as “The Sacks Project,” knew it would be his directorial debut.
“Five years ago, I started reading a bunch of these brain-science books, and a bunch of Oliver’s books,” he says. “But the actual experience of making the film made me much more of a believer, in an experiential sense. So if this does anything to build people’s knowledge of musical therapy, it’s worth it.”
The movie opens with a phone call to Gabriel’s parents. He’s been found wandering the streets of New York with a brain tumor that requires immediate surgery.
Flashbacks reveal the tempestuous family faceoff that forced the son to run away as a teen and never return.
Like a good wig can subtract 20 years for said scenes, Kohlberg says, “I think a good beard can add 20. Gabriel’s beard was an issue that we faced every day, and poor Lou had to sit in the chair for three hours every morning while it was put on.”
It’s a breakthrough performance for Pucci (“Carriers,” “Thumbsucker”), whose facial expressions mirror Gabriel’s gradual emergence from near-catatonic torpor. He also learned guitar and trumpet for the role.
“My dad’s a guitarist, bassist and singer, so I grew up around guitar,” he says. “But I never wanted to play it — it was intimidating because he was so good. But I was learning fiddle for a year before that, and having the fiddle as base, I could actually learn guitar a lot easier.”
Eventually, Dylan, Beatles and Grateful Dead records re-establish familial bonds.
“I think it says it all with ‘All You Need Is Love,’” says Pucci of the film’s linchpin therapeutic number. “Because those are the most direct song lyrics you could possibly have for making people feel together and connected again.”
Starring J.K Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond
Written by Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks
Directed by Jim Kohlberg
Running time 1 hour 45 minutes