Friday, April 1, 2011

The Music Never Stopped (opens in Cleveland April 1st)

[THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED opens in Cleveland Friday April 1st 2011 exclusively at the Cedar Lee Theatre.]

Review by Ben Lybarger

Though it telegraphs its emotional punches and tends toward the precious, you’d have to be borderline sociopathic to get through this film without choking up at least a little. Loosely based on a true story by Oliver Sacks, THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED unfortunately loses its poignancy as director Jim Kohlberg entreats the viewer with every kind of bittersweet, tear-inducing scene imaginable, making the eyes roll at least as much as they dampen.

Lou Taylor Pucci plays Gabriel, an idealistic hippie teenager turned catatonic homeless man suffering anterograde amnesia as the result of a brain tumor. He cannot form new memories, and so is stuck in his youth with the same musical and political passions that had caused a major falling out with his father (J.K. Simmons) two decades prior. With Gabriel most responsive to music therapy, his dad’s struggle to reconnect after the lengthy estrangement becomes ironically rooted in the same musical counter-culture that had driven a wedge between them all those years ago. However, it soon becomes clear that the unwittingly selfish imposition of the father’s identity upon the son provides the real basis of the generational rift, now made even more daunting by the subsequent brain damage.

The most interesting aspect of the film is what it suggests about the relation of music to language and memory, and how songs may be encoded differently in the brain than other forms of experience. The success of music therapy for patients with brain injuries may be due to a song’s heightened emotional tonality, or because rhythm and melody engage the cerebellum and thereby get recorded in procedural memory. Such things are not explored here in any detail, which is somewhat dismaying given our current cultural obsession with medical minutiae in TV dramas, something this movie often feels like. Despite my own curiosity, however, I cannot fault a drama for lacking insight about neuroscience.

What did legitimately grate on me, though, is the stale generation clash that seemed forced and over-the-top, complete with the flakey pothead kid involved in a flag-burning while the uptight dad, who just can’t understand the music of the times, fumes with conservative anger. Often the movie seemed like a bald marketing attempt to reach nostalgic baby-boomers that never bothered to dig beneath the surface of their worn-out flower child soundtrack, and will rejoice in the name-checking and generational conceit found here. Also, part of the problem of using so many well-known songs from iconic bands is that they come with so much subjective baggage - good and bad - which audiences will react to at least as much as the story.

Music aside, the acting here is generally good although uneven at times, with both Simmons and Tucci occasionally appearing self-conscious in their roles. The most effective scenes involve Celia (Mía Maestro), the cook at the facility where Gabriel lives. His infatuation with her feels mutual during his most lucid moments, torturing both of them with a glimpse of what could never be.

For the most part, though, the film feels hollow in parts where it ought to feel its most profound, and the constant cloying is not mitigated by the sporadic attempts at humor. Still, there is something to be said for the fact that Kohlberg does not exhaust or alienate the viewer enough to remain unaffected by the movie’s obvious conclusion. When all is said and done, though, THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED lands squarely in middle-brow territory, a small film rife with familiar clichés and few surprises. 2 out of 4 stars.

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