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.
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.
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 Dead.net 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...)