Music and the mind in ‘The Music Never Stopped’ |

Music and the mind in ‘The Music Never Stopped’

Stewart Oksenhorn
The Aspen Times
Aspen, CO Colorado
Courtesy Roadside AttractionsCara Seymour and Lou Taylor Pucci star in "The Music Never Stopped," showing Saturday and Sunday at the Wheeler Opera House in Aspen.

ASPEN – For decades a devout community of acolytes, many of them admittedly offbeat and foul smelling, have been swearing about the otherworldly powers of a small band of elders. Those on the outside generally chalked it up to drugs, mass delusion and simply bad taste run amok.

But evidence has emerged from the mainstream – namely, the medical establishment – that the music of the Grateful Dead may have a unique capacity for burrowing into the subconscious and awakening what lies in the core of the human mind. That evidence, brought to the surface 20 years ago, is now presented in “The Music Never Stopped.” The film, directed by Jim Kohlberg, is based on a case study conducted by Oliver Sacks, the British-born neurologist and writer whose previous research into brain function was the source for the 1990 film “Awakenings.”

“Awakenings” focused on Sacks’ work with drugs – the beneficial, but temporary effects of L-dopa on catatonic patients. But in “The Music Never Stopped,” drugs don’t play a role (an astonishing thing, given the prominence of the Grateful Dead and the setting of the early-’70s counterculture). Here, the music itself is the curative.

“The Music Never Stopped” – adapted from Sacks’ case study, “The Last Hippie” – focuses on Gabriel Sawyer (Lou Taylor Pucci). As shown in numerous sequences flashing back to the early ’70s, Gabriel was the era’s standard-issue suburban teenager: smoking pot, feuding with his parents over music and Vietnam, preparing to drop out to play music in Greenwich Village. But when we are first introduced to him, it is 15 years later, and Gabriel is a casualty not so much of any mistakes of his youth, but medical bad luck. A benign tumor on his brain has wiped out much of his memory, and prevents him from forming new long-term memories. He is, in effect, trapped in the past – able to access select old associations, but unable to process what is happening now. The condition leaves him stiff, uncertain and alienated.

Back in the ’70s, it was only his father from whom Gabriel was alienated. Henry Sawyer (played by J.K. Simmons with his usual effectiveness) is an engineer not without warmth and a sense of humor. But he being upended by the shifting cultural tide. He is especially uneasy with what has happened to music, the sea change that has replaced his beloved melodic, sentimental, easy-to-grasp songs with loud, unstructured rock ‘n’ roll that is urgent to say something. Father and son clash over matters big and small; Gabriel’s missing his first Grateful Dead show because Henry insists he attend college night at high school is one of the more significant ones. One night emotions boil over, and Gabriel splits.

When he stumbles back into the Sawyer’s middle-class existence just outside New York City, Gabriel is a near-zombie. Henry, prodded by his wife Helen (Cara Seymour) comes to his son’s bedside, but is quickly frustrated by a combination of Gabriel’s inability to communicate and memories of past failures to bond. Henry brings in a therapist, Dianne Daley (Julia Ormond), who has been using music as a tool of connecting with emotionally distant patients. Dianne accidentally discovers it’s not just any music that reaches Gabriel, and it certainly isn’t the music that Henry cherishes. It’s the music of Gabriel’s youth: the Beatles. Buffalo Springfield. Dylan.

And more dramatic than all, the Grateful Dead. “I love the Dead,” Gabriel sighs, his face and spirit coming to life, each time the Dead are put on the turntable. “I almost saw them once,” he adds, a statement redolent of both hope and dashed dreams. The Grateful Dead – Gabriel’s memories of first hearing them, his affection for the sound, the lyrics and the myths – triggers something and the music becomes a doorway, allowing Gabriel to enter into the present. And in the final act, it becomes an even bigger opening, which Gabriel and Henry step through together: dressed in tie-dyes, they attend a Dead show.

• • • •

Just as Gabriel almost saw the Dead back in the ’70s, Jim Kohlberg, too, missed that musical era. Growing up in the mid-’70s – he graduated high school, in the suburbs just north of New York City, in 1976 – he believed he was born a touch too late for a fabled time in rock ‘n’ roll. “So I looked with envy at these people who had their rite of passage in the ’60s,” the 53-year-old said from his home near Palo Alto. Even his own musical dabblings are touched by a sense of having missed out; he notes that he has played “very bad folk and country guitar for 20 years.”

Though a music fan, and though he was attracted by the prospect of working on a film that included a soundtrack of the Dead, Cream and Dylan, Kohlberg came to “The Music Never Stopped” as more of a science-head than a Deadhead. While working as a film producer – “Trumbo,” an excellent documentary about a blacklisted screenwriter, executive produced by Kohlberg, showed at the final U.S. Comedy Arts Festival in Aspen, in 2007 – and theater director, Kohlberg somehow developed a fascination with the brain.

“Some people are interested in history. I happened to have an interest in brain science,” he said. He mentions the 2007 book “Proust Was a Neuroscientist,” in which author Jonah Lehrer posits that various artists have offered insight into how the mind works well before science got into the brain. “Our understanding of the brain has come so far. We thought the brain was like a hard-drive – data in, data out. And it’s so much more flexible than that.”

Kohlberg, then, was already familiar with Oliver Sacks when a friend gave him a screenplay based on “The Last Hippie.” The project had been languishing for 14 years, held up on the assumption that the rights to the music would be either prohibitively expensive or altogether impossible to secure. But Kohlberg fell for the screenplay and though he had not directed a movie before, was determined to make the film. Those on the musical side seemed to agree with Kohlberg about the merits of the project, and Dylan, the Dead and others made their music accessible to the producers. “The Music Never Stopped” had its premiere in January at Sundance, with the Dead’s Mickey Hart and Bob Weir in attendance.

Kohlberg has long believed that music can affect our emotions. “I go back to my experiences, when I was discovering music,” he said. “If I was upset, I could put on [The Allman Brothers’] ‘Eat a Peach’ or some Dylan song, and it was like a drug,” he said. That belief deepened during the research phase for “The Music Never Stopped,” when he began speaking with Sacks.

Sacks, it turned out, came to the Grateful Dead by happenstance; he and Mickey Hart both testified before Congress on the capacity of music to enliven people with Parkinson’s disease. Sacks had the idea to bring Gabriel to see the Dead, in 1991.

“And he just woke up in a way Oliver had never seen him before,” Kohlberg, who has had Sacks in attendance for several screenings of “The Music Never Stopped,” said. “He had played him music before, and seen the effect. But not like that. That was the band that brought him back to life.”

• • • •

I’ve been a sucker for the Grateful Dead since certain songs began working their way into my head. “Scarlet Begonias” and “Uncle John’s Band” are the earliest ones in my memory, and both remain favorites. Learning about the Dead – in my early teens, when all kinds of influential ideas were forming for me – wasn’t like discovering the Who or Steely Dan, two of my other landmark bands. Each new Dead song was like finding out about a new dimension; there were colors, emotions and events associated with each one.

Thirty-plus years after those formative times, the power of music – and for me, like Gabriel, the Grateful Dead in particular – became evident. “The Music Never Stopped” pushed all those buttons, and gave me reason to marvel again at how deeply embedded the Grateful Dead, from the songs to the personalities, were in me. When Gabriel, finally attending a Dead show, asks “Where’s Pigpen?” – not knowing that the band’s original keyboardist had died decades earlier – it choked me up.

And it wasn’t only the Dead: At one point, a baffled Henry asks Gabriel what in the world “Desolation Row,” Dylan’s baffling song of poets and biblical characters gallivanting in some dark, mysterious place, is about. Gabriel explains that Dylan was inspired by a newspaper account of a lynching that took place at a carnival. I hadn’t heard this before, and don’t know if it’s true, but it sounds spot-on and I imagine I will be repeating it as fact.

“The Music Never Stopped” isn’t a perfect movie. The conclusion is predictable, and at the same time, it comes too suddenly, almost as if there was a part of the film missing. We never get a sharp enough picture of Gabriel’s condition. A quasi-romantic angle is squeezed in for no apparent reason.

But it is a wonderful film. J.K. Simmons brings to life the heartache and undying devotion that comes with being a parent. As much as it deals with the counter-culture, the film is rooted in an old-fashioned style of storytelling. For a film about extremes – the opposing sides of the generation gap, a polarizing moment in American history, an extreme medical condition – “The Music Never Stopped” is remarkably well-balanced.

And it really grips the heart in the way it addresses music generally. It’s a nice touch that Henry’s affection for old show tunes is never disparaged. Those are the songs that work the magic for him.

For a Deadhead, this is a proud affirmation that all those road trips, the collecting of low-quality bootleg cassette tapes, the trading of lore and statistics and stories, wasn’t some meaningless pursuit. “The Music Never Stopped” puts Jerry Garcia and company on a high plain.

Kohlberg has spent a good amount of time with Mickey Hart, the drummer who has been the Dead member most likely to spout about music’s mystical properties. In the process, Kohlberg has been persuaded that the Dead’s music is potent medicine.

“I don’t think there’s any question about that, especially if you talk to Mickey,” he said. “He says, We didn’t do anything. The fans just became so involved in the music and created a lifestyle around it. And I don’t think that’s an accident.”

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