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Movie Review

The Music Never Stopped

A family bonds to the rhythms of classic-rock

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By Ty Burr
Globe Staff / April 1, 2011

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You know those dads who are such music freaks that they teach their children everything about Dylan, say, or the Ramones, and then flip out when the kids go over to Ke$ha? Sure you do. (Me, I just look in the mirror.) “The Music Never Stopped’’ is about how one of those dads gets his comeuppance and realizes how lucky he is.

Fictionalized from an actual medical case written about by neurologist Oliver Sacks in his early-’90s essay “The Last Hippie,’’ the movie is a drably directed yet terrifically affecting drama about family bonds, classic rock, and the human brain. It’s sentimental, yet so honest and eccentric that it rises above schmaltz.

The reliable character actor J.K. Simmons (“Juno’’) tamps his energy down for a rare lead role as Henry Sawyer, a mechanical engineer who, when the film opens in 1986, is nearing retirement and stuck in a rut. Henry is a fusspot and a fanatic for the music of the pre-rock era — the big bands, the show tunes — and he has never forgiven his only child, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), for rebelling with Jimi and the Stones and Gabriel’s beloved Grateful Dead.

Gone for 20 years, the prodigal son turns up in the hospital, his brain gutted by an enormous tumor. It’s removed and the prognosis is good, except that Gabriel can no longer form short-term memories. For him, the year is still 1970, that rat Nixon is still in office, and Dad remains the Man.

Initially catatonic, Gabriel comes to life whenever music is played. To the delight of his therapist, Dianne (Julia Ormond), and the chagrin of his father, he responds tepidly to Bing Crosby yet ecstatically to the Beatles, to Cream, to the Dead’s “Uncle John’s Band.’’ It’s here that “The Music Never Stopped’’ ceases to be a curiously glum tale of intergenerational strife and turns into something strange and new. The only way for Henry to help Gabriel find himself — the only way he can be with his son — is to become a classic-rock junkie.

This is a sight to see, warming and often hilarious, and I’m betting that Simmons read the script and thought of Richard Jenkins’s character in “The Visitor,’’ another frozen soul thawed by polyrhythms. The four corners of “The Music Never Stopped’’ are exquisitely acted, with Simmons gradually letting Henry’s freak flag fly, Pucci conveying the encyclopedic rock junkie inside the lost boy, Ormond showing the joy in professionalism, and Cara Seymour as Henry’s wife, Helen, gathering strength as her character finally becomes her own person.

A really good director might have created a classic out of this. Jim Kohlberg, a producer (“Two Family House’’) making his behind-the-camera debut, moves the narrative along effectively but with zero visual style, and the hair and makeup in the flashback scenes are a disaster. He knows enough to get out of the story’s way, at least, and he’s very lucky to have a music supervisor, Susan Jacobs, who gets the right songs for the right scenes. (The bit where Gabriel explains “Desolation Row’’ to his father is a giddy highlight.)

Not surprisingly, the prevailing vibe of “The Music Never Stopped’’ is set by “Ripple,’’ “Truckin’,’’ and other mellow, forgiving Grateful Dead warhorses. (The band’s Mickey Hart has been involved with this story from the very beginning.) That may draw you in or send you running for the hills. Whatever your musical tastes, though, the film’s a charmer with unexpected things to say about fathers and sons, the back roads of the brain, and the peculiar music fanaticism of so many otherwise mature men. It’s one to remember.

Ty Burr can be reached at tburr@ globe.com, or followed at www.twitter.com/tyburr.

THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED

Directed by: Jim Kohlberg

Written by: Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks, based on an essay by Oliver Sacks

Starring: J.K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond

At: Boston Common

Running time: 105 minutes

Rated: PG (thematic elements, some drug references, language, and smoking)

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