The Music Never Stopped thrives on a diet of meaty, recognizable dramatic material, telling a story of rehabilitation that touches on father-son relationships, the power of memories, and the easy pleasure of a good song. That it manages to spin these well-trod elements into a credible movie speaks for how carefully it’s put together, but their familiarity also dulls its effectiveness. You’ll undoubtedly feel something when watching a film like this, but not necessarily anything that hasn’t been evoked more originally, and more effectively, elsewhere.
Set in an autumnal-looking 1986, the film finds the Sawyer family upon the rediscovery of their estranged son, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci), a former teen runaway whose lifestyle was left scruffy and damaged in the intervening years. Thanks to years of transient life, Gabriel has a brain tumor that, though benign, has spread enough to destroy significant sections of his brain. What’s left is a shell of a person, unable to form new memories or recall many old ones, spouting fragmented, knee-jerk responses to the words spoken around him.
Gabriel seems doomed to a lifetime of vegetablehood, until a kind nurse finds that his brain whirs to life after hearing the opening snatches of “La Marseillaise,” a change that allows him to play along with a nearby trumpet, as long as the song is playing. Yet Gabriel’s bag isn’t classical, or even the ‘50s torch songs on which his music-obsessed father (J.K. Simmons) weaned him, but classic rock. His strange response proves not to be to the French national anthem, but the first bars of the Beatles “All You Need Is Love,” which famously samples the song.
As a plot device with nostalgic potential, The Music Never Stopped appears to have seized upon a relatively ingenious concept, which allows it to push along the story while bathing the action in familiar, reminiscence-inspiring songs. Adapted from a real-life case study profiled by essayist Oliver Sacks, the film uses that kernel of truth to focus on the recollective potential of music, to bring back memories and accompany new ones, while guiding father and son through the rigors of familial reconnection. We eventually learn that Gabriel left the family home after a long struggle centered on music, the straight-laced Henry furious about the negative effects of his son’s steady diet of protest music, which he believes pushed him to such acts of defiance as burning an American flag on stage during a high school performance.
In the present, however, Henry is faced with a strange dilemma. He can have his son back, if only momentarily, by learning to bond with him on the one subject Gabriel has left: his music. Songs like “Uncle John’s Band” and “Desolation Row” lead him into brief fugues of lively recollection. Unfortunately, the film exhausts most of its early potential during these bonding sessions. They push The Music Never Stopped toward its climax, but also blunt its ability to tell an engaging, non-sappy story. Characters are reduced to springboards for emotional catharsis, outside problems are ignored in favor of dramatic tunnel vision, and a significant character is killed off, to assure audience tears over an ending that’s already maxed out on poignant cachet.