Adapted from a non-fiction essay by Oliver Sacks, The Music Never Stopped is a grossly manipulative, painfully earnest weepie that threatens, and fails, to destroy the copious goodwill it’s shored up. First and foremost is a rare starring role for J.K. Simmons, the first-rate character actor most recognizable from Oz and Spider-Man. Simmons plays Henry Sawyer, a perfect embodiment of a dying era of male stoicism and emotional remoteness. Having estranged his Dylan-loving son Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) through the ‘60s and ‘70s, Henry finds himself slowly and reluctantly chilling out after Gabriel suffers a brain tumor in the ‘80s that leaves him incapable of forging new memories and, thanks to music therapy led by a frizzy-coiffed Julia Ormond, only able to draw upon old ones when his favorite music’s playing.
It’s a gimmick Charlie Kaufman could have dreamt up, with people connecting but only under the cruelest of circumstances, and at its best The Music Never Stopped goes beyond a mere King’s Speechy speech therapy saga to a relationship drama far more powerful than the friendship fans say is the true heart of that recent Best Picture-winner. More moving than Gabriel’s burgeoning communication skills is the father-son business, which is both broadly appealing and knowing in the specifics. One nice touch is Henry’s pettiness when he realizes his son responds not to the old standards with which he brought him up but rather the ‘60s rock he passionately loathes.
Though way too young, at 25, for his role—the idea is to literalize his charcter’s infantalization, but this is not the kind of film that can handle such Buñuelian casting stunts—Pucci manages the rare feat of conveying mental failure without segueing into Rainman territory. But Simmons is the slowly thawing heart of the film, and his progression from testy asshole to old fogey rock nerd is handled with a delicacy that makes you realize the film’s distributors have released it at the wrong time of the year. Throughout, director Jim Kohlberg sides with his actors in underplaying what most would drown in unneeded sap. By the end, about the only thing testing Music’s massive good will is Gabriel’s unfortunate yen for the Grateful fucking Dead.