For a while, The Music Never Stopped looks like it might follow the successful path of another film based on the work of famed neurologist Dr. Oliver Sacks – the 1990 Best Picture nominee Awakenings. That earlier film — which starred Robert De Niro and Robin Williams — told the story of the 1950s “awakening” of long-suffering catatonic patients thanks to the benefits of the new drug L-Dopa. An awakening of a mentally-impaired patient also occurs in Music Never Stopped, but the drug responsible this time around is the Grateful Dead.

That’s an interesting role for the music of a seminal band to play, but then this is an interesting film – one that is simultaneously a chronicle of scientific and medical discovery, touching family drama and valentine to “The Dead” that will no doubt resonate with Deadheads everywhere. While there are perhaps a few missed opportunities, somehow through it all, the film works.

Suburban middle-aged couple Henry and Helen Sawyer (J.K. Simmons and Cara Seymour) are summoned to the hospital one day to see their estranged son of nearly 20 years, Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci). Turns out that after running away from home a few months shy of his high school graduation in 1967, Gabriel has been living on the streets and has developed a benign – but quite sizable – brain tumor. The tumor and the ensuing operation to remove it render Gabriel unable to form new memories and place him in a cloudy, distant and impersonal state. For all intents and purposes, he’s completely lost his identity and exists as a mere shell of a person.

Wracked with guilt over the disagreements that led to the ill-fated estrangement and frustrated by the doctors who tell him there’s no hope for his son, Henry heads to the library’s microfilm archives to conduct his own research. There, he reads publications detailing how the brain processes music differently than other forms of stimuli. This, in turn, leads him to musical therapist Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond, having aged significantly since her mid-90s heyday), who discovers that the rock music of Gabriel’s formative years – specifically, the Grateful Dead – is what brings him back to life. When the music is playing, Gabriel is “reawakened,” and his passion and love for the music come forth in a torrent of feel-good emotion. Turn off the music, and you turn off Gabriel.

At first, Henry isn’t impressed. He largely sees the music of the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan and others as responsible for the rift that developed between them, which is largely true. (The radical changes that took place in ’60s music are a great showcase for the enormous generation gap that emerged in America at the time). Faced with no other alternative, Henry finally gives in. He listens to The Dead ad nauseum, learning what he can about them and coming to appreciate their music via his discussions with Gabriel. At 65, Henry may be the oldest Deadhead in 1985 America, but he’s also found a way to reconnect with his son.

Astute cinema buffs may recognize Simmons from his scene-stealing work as the newspaper editor in the Spider-Man movies, the dad in Juno or the fired employee in Up in the Air. A veteran character actor known for his fast-talking, acerbic snark, Simmons hasn’t had many opportunities to showcase his talents in leading roles. Here, playing a more-restrained character than is usual for him, Simmons really shines, pulling off an effective and believable transition from curmudgeonly stubbornness to genuine empathy.

If there’s a chink in the film’s cast, it’s Pucci, who, while hardly incompetent, is a bit too stark in his portrayal of Gabriel. A little more subtlety might have gone a long way, particularly in the scenes in which Gabriel “awakens” and then devolves into his cloudy state. James Franco – whom Picktainment’s Phil Wallace has noted bears a physical resemblance to Pucci – may have been an ideal casting choice here, particularly considering his detached performance at the Oscars last month.

I must confess to not being overly familiar with the music of the Grateful Dead, but after having seen this cinematic ode to them, there’s no doubt it’s a must-see for any Deadhead. (Though I should note that a concert scene with actors portraying Jerry Garcia, Bob Weir, Phil Lesh and others is rather awkward). First-time director Jim Kohlberg also adds in a decent share of levity to the proceedings while overseeing a number of scenes of genuine, emotional tenderness. The movie features a few contrived situations, yet rarely hits a false note.

Given the source material, it would have been interesting to see where the film might have gone had it been more ambitious and skewed more toward the scientific elements of the Sacks essay on which it is based. Exploring the dramatic implications of Gabriel’s case study in the way that Awakenings or Lorenzo’s Oil did may well have led to a more compelling and memorable film.

Ultimately, though, this indie production narrows its focus to the relationship between father and son. It’s a more limited scope, yes, but it’s also the film’s greatest strength. Those fans of J.K. Simmons, the Grateful Dead or familial redemption would do well to seek this one out.

Also see:

Nate Freiberg discussing the film in the Picktainment Weekly Podcast