The people behind The Music Never Stopped, a painfully earnest new drama adapted from a non-fiction Oliver Sacks essay, must have been thrilled when The King’s Speech exceeded most expectations en route to Oscar glory, proving that there’s an audience for a nakedly sincere crowd-pleaser about the intense relationship between a therapist and his client. And while its similarity to The Music Never Stopped is unavoidable, the latter deserves to find an audience on its own merits.
In a moving, restrained performance, J.K. Simmons plays a loving but uptight father estranged from son Lou Taylor Pucci after Pucci dodges college to pursue a career as a Greenwich Village musician. Simmons reconnects with his son in the mid-’80s after a brain tumor leaves Pucci incapable of forming new memories, and extremely fuzzy about the memories he already has. When speech therapist Julia Ormond discovers she can reach Pucci through the music he loved when he was coming of age—primarily the Grateful Dead—Simmons is in a difficult position. He can either re-live the generational war that drove Pucci from his house, or try to reconnect with a son he lost decades ago through a form of music Simmons doesn’t understand.
Director Jim Kohlberg begins and ends his stylistic ambitions by transferring the script onto the screen as plainly as possible. As long as he focuses on Pucci, Simmons, and Ormond, it’s a winning strategy. Pucci’s heartbreaking performance is defined by emotional transparency; his eyes light up and he comes alive when he gushes about music. In some ways, he’s like a Bizarro World version of the maniac in American Psycho, only he uses his engagement with music to connect with the world rather than to kill time before murders. Pucci’s character can’t conceal anything; Simmons, in sharp contrast, conceals just about everything, but he experiences a profound emotional thaw as he realizes he must engage on his son’s terms, rather than his own. The Music Never Stopped only begins to feel like a TV movie when it strays beyond the central relationship to take in various cartoon hippies and squares. Thankfully, Kohlberg keeps the focus squarely on the leads, and the film emerges as a powerful, even shattering look as music’s power to unite where it once divided.