Grateful Dead

Blair's Golden Road Blog - The Music Never Stopped

Robert Hunter and Alan Trist, who carefully shepherd the Grateful Dead’s publishing company, Ice Nine, have been quite picky through the years about which film and TV projects they will allow the Dead’s music to appear in. You just know that there must be an avalanche of requests to use “Truckin’” and “Uncle John’s Band” and other tunes, but by being so selective, they have helped maintain the integrity of their song catalog. It’s not just a question of “selling out,” because I don’t think anyone begrudges songwriters an opportunity to make money from their labors. But it is understanding how a song is going to be used and deciding if that context is appropriate for the song in question. For years, Pete Townshend has sold Who songs to seemingly any company that will put up some cash, and in the process he’s cheapened many of his classics in my eyes. The Buffalo Springfield song “For What’s It’s Worth” (“Stop, children what’s that sound…”) seems to be in every film and TV show set in the 1960s no matter what the quality, and as a result Stephen Stills’ great tune has become a boring film music cliché.

I’m afraid “For What It’s Worth” rears its head once more in the new film The Music Never Stopped, but so do several Grateful Dead songs and numbers by Dylan, The Beatles, Donovan and others. It’s an impressive list, and songs by most of these artists don’t usually come cheap for filmmakers. So how did fledgling director Jim Kohlberg manage to snag music by those artists for his low-budget film (which was a hit with audiences at the Sundance Film Festival in January 2011)?

Well, it’s probably because The Music Never Stopped is a very well-intentioned work about the healing power of music. Based on a true story/essay by Dr. Oliver Sacks called “The Last Hippie,” the film is about a man in his late 30s (Gabriel, played by Lou Taylor Pucci) who has had most of his memory wiped out by a brain tumor, to the point where he is barely functional. He is unable to hold new memories (much like an elderly dementia patient), and his parents, whom he has not seen since he stormed out of the family home in 1967 (the film takes place in 1986) can’t seem to communicate with him in a meaningful way.

Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) rhapsodizes
about music to his dad (J.K. Simmons)
in The Music Never Stopped.

Enter therapist Dianne Daly (Julia Ormond), who has had some success using music to reach difficult patients like Gabriel. She quickly finds that, indeed, music is the key to unlocking parts of Gabriel’s memory bank. Hearing “Mr. Tambourine Man” or “All You Need Is Love” or “Uncle John’s Band” is enough to trigger Gabriel’s recollections of the tumultuous late 1960s, when he was in a rock band called Black Sheep and battling regularly with his conservative parents (J.K. Simmons — of Law & Order and Juno fame — and Cara Seymour) about everything from the Vietnam War to whether he would be allowed to go see the Dead at Stonybrook.

Through a series of flashbacks we learn about the events that led to the father-son estrangement and the ramifications of these revelations on their current relationship. You can probably guess that Gabriel isn’t the only one who is transformed by music in this film. His father is forced to drop his ancient prejudices against rock because music is the only plane on which he and Gabriel can truly connect.

I don’t want to give away too many plot points, but I do want to recommend the film. The Dead’s music plays a very important role in The Music Never Stopped. Gabriel loves the band and seems especially fixated on Pigpen, unaware that the singer is long gone, as Gabriel’s memories don’t seem to go past 1970. There is even a depiction of a mid-’80s Grateful Dead concert, with actors portraying the band members, at the Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City (hey, it’s a low-budget film — did you expect them to rent out Madison Square Garden?). OK, it is a bit jarring to see (sort of) lookalikes up onstage miming to Grateful Dead songs (“Bobby’s” hair color is too dark; something’s odd about “Jerry’s” beard, etc.), but you know what? The body language is about right, the long shots of the band look pretty good, and it is the emotional resonance of the scene that is most important, so I went with it.

And that’s how I approached the numerous flashback scenes, too. I could nitpick all day about little things that didn’t ring true in either the language that the counterculture types use (I’ve literally never heard someone say that a song or band “spaces me out,” for instance), or the look of certain things. There is also a fairly predictable arc to the story (though there are surprises along the way, too). But the general contour of most scenes felt right. Those of us of a certain age have no trouble recalling endless arguments about Vietnam and trying in vain to “explain” Bob Dylan or the Grateful Dead to parents and grandparents. The “generation gap” was real, and many people, unfortunately, were never able to bridge it. The central relationship in this film, between Gabriel and his father, is played beautifully by both actors; in fact the entire cast is strong.

“Jerry” in action at
the Hammerstein Ballroom in NYC
in The Music Never Stopped.

Some may find the film’s denouement a tad maudlin, but sentimental soul that I am, I found it moving and effective. The Music Never Stopped is filled with heart, and its affection for the music and for all of the characters is obvious and sincere. If it sometimes feels a bit too earnest and seems as if the issues are being painted with too broad a brush, it’s only because it aims to communicate so much. And the music is fantastic. You’ve gotta love a film that’s not afraid to dig into a little “Desolation Row.”

(By the way, the soundtrack album for The Music Never Stopped, which is set for release March 29, contains a number of Grateful Dead tracks, including the studio takes of “Uncle John’s Band” and “Ripple,” the 1971 “Skull & Roses” version of “Not Fade Away > Goin’ Down the Road” and three previously unreleased live tunes: “Sugar Magnolia” from the Capitol Theatre in Port Chester, 2/24/71; “Truckin’” from Deer Creek, 7/15/89; and “Touch of Grey” from Brendan Byrne Arena, 10/14/89. It also includes tunes by Dylan, Donovan, Steppenwolf, CSN… and Peggy Lee—you’ll know why if you see the film.)

*       *       *

I have certainly felt the magical and restorative powers of music often through the years—physically, mentally and emotionally. I have also seen its remarkable effects on others, young and old. What’s been your experience? And if you’ve seen The Music Never Stopped, what did you think about it and the issues it raises?

(Note: This column was written before I knew that was going to have a contest asking y'all for your thoughts about the healing power of music! So, if you've already chimed in there, that's cool. No pressure to do so here, unless you've got some other stuff to say. And I know you do. I'd also be interested in hearing your thoughts about the use of rock tunes in films and commercials, pro and con. Alas, I've got no prizes to give away...)


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marye's picture
Joined: May 26 2007

Ice Nine Publishing...

Joined: Jun 7 2007
Getting permission to quote lyrics

On a somewhat related topic to getting permission to use Dead songs in movies/TV shows: I'm self-publishing a collection of my early writing, including a novel set in Santa Cruz in 1990. As you might imagine, there are some Grateful Dead references in the work, including a four-line quote of "Franklin's Tower." I've added a copyright notice for the quote and made it as accurate as possible, but I'd like to say "used by permission." Whom would I contact about getting permission? Is it likely that it will be given? Apologies in advance if this is off-topic for the blog.

Jack O-Roses's picture
Joined: Sep 29 2007
My Rule for Songs in Commercials

I do not really have a problem with artists giving over their songs for commericals because, as it has been said before, "we all gotta eat". It used to bother me, but who am I to judge. But I believe there needs to be a rule for artists that do this:

Once you sell your song and it is attached to a product, that song can no longer be played on the radio or sold via iTunes or wherever they sell songs these days.

This is because once a song is associated with a product, any playing of that song outside the context of the commercial is free advertising for said product. Plus, any memories I or anyone else had attached to the song has now been usurped by a commercial venture. "More Than A Feeling" by Boston used to be associated by me with the first time I got laid (it was on the radio in the car at the time - sorry, tmi), but now all it does is sell lottery tickets. Sell the song, but after that it's married forever to whatever it's trying to sell.

giantnerd's picture
Joined: Jun 24 2007

It is very hard to make a living as a musician. And it's only getting more difficult. People stopped buying CD's because of "free" downloads. Now people have stopped going to concerts!!! In order to keep the industry going many will have to align themselves with commercials. Bands like the Black Keys are very popular and sold 500,000 records. They for sure make a significant amount of their income from selling their songs. Vampire Weekend, too. People like Brittany Spears and Avril Lavigne make significant amounts of money from product placement in their videos. Another way to go is independent, and Joe Bonamassa has been very successful with never ending touring and releasing an independant record each year. If you are lucky enough to sell tickets, t-shirts, or records you can pick and choose who uses your song. Others may not be so lucky. You say it's a living, we all gotta eat.

Joined: Jun 6 2007

That box set will never come out because so many of the original multitrack tapes from those 1980 shows were (stupidly) recorded over. What a shame! As for video, that is limited, too, (maybe the final two RCMH shows? Not sure about that...) although there's certainly more than just what appeared on the Dead Ahead commercial video.

DarkStarr1971's picture
Joined: Jul 15 2008
music never stopped

Ok i got my local tickets to "The Music Never Stopped". im taking some non deadheads with me to see it, i hope they enjoy it also. On a different subj. i wonder if The early 1980s Radio City Music Hall Box set will ever come to light? I love the video ive seen that was taken of that show, it sparkles, it almost looks magical? is that overlayed in the video? its probably some of the best video and music performance from Jerry and the band ive seen!! It would make a huge Box set that would make the Grateful Dead millions of dollars. is there any reason this box could be not issued? ive always read about union halls having some kind of legal power against release of music recorded in certain Halls? its would make a Killer Box and video release!!! anyone please feel free to coment on this subj

deadmike's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
Well well ...

There is always two sides to a story and the same goes with how many times certain songs appeari movies and films and so forth.

To me, the inclusion of For What It's Worth in various films of or from the sixties mean that Buffalo Springfileld is so much more known i Sweden than The Grateful Dead will ever be. That means most record albums and other stuff will be more accessible for purchase in Sweden than the Dead.

I guess what I'm saying I had wished Robert Hunter and Alan Trist hadn't been so picky in the past. But I can see the point of view from an american standpoint as well. I guess, if the Grateful Dead had been a Swedish band, I would probably have agreed with you Blair.

For What It's Worth is one of the really great/big songs of the 1960's and I don't find it boring a bit. A fighting scene between police and demonstraters of the late sixties is not complete without that great song. I could imagine different songs from the Dead being the most obvious choice for any filmmaker, making a documentary on late 60's/early 70's hippiedom. That would probably only increase the interest for our boys on this side of the Atlantic pool. To the benefit for us, who have already seen "the light".

Hopefully, I can convince the local alternative movie theater to show The Music Never Stopped, when (if?) it become available here in Sweden. Not so much becasue of the Dead part as the story behind the film though, I guess. The Deadheads in the audience will not be in majority, if ypu know what I mean ... ;-)

Micke Östlund,
Växjö, Sweden

My record collection:

Joined: Jun 5 2007

What if Cher had been the first Dead female vocalist? Instead of Donna Jean...
"Imagine there's no Donna...
"Nothing to cover your ears for..."
But, nah, Sonny couldn't play keyboards worth a crap.
Never mind.
And, I know it's too late for this, but; only joking, Donna. I loved you at the Garcia Tribute concert at Berkley's Greek.

Mike Edwards's picture
Joined: Jun 17 2007
Don't neglect to pick up what your Cher is

We can Cher the women, we can Cher the wine
We can Cher what we got of yours 'cause we done Cherred all of mine

I'll drink your health, Cher your wealth

I cannot Cher your laughter, ship of fools

Thanks for setting the sonic trajectory of my day, Timmy. But seriously, I wanted to add a Cher data point here, that being the use of Ripple to really powerful effect at the end of the film Mask. And then there's the Rhythm Devils river work on Apocalypse Now...

cosmicbadger's picture
Joined: Jun 13 2007
no worries Blair

you don't have to offer T shirts to get our attention!

How many people assumed like me that the movie 'American Beauty' would have some Grateful Dead content? Bit of a shock when I actually saw it! It was a good film though and some GD tunes might have worked in it...I wonder if they were asked? I see that the Who are on the soundfrack!


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