A film about the powerful connection between music and memory—The Music Never Stopped described by the New York Post as “a mash-up of Awakenings and Almost Famous”—is now open, following its debut earlier this year at Sundance.
Music is the fictionalized account of the real-life patient—Gabriel is his name in the film—profiled in the essay “The Last Hippie” by the neurologist and best-selling author Oliver Sacks, M.D., known for his published collections of case studies. The film traces the story of a 30-something Gabriel, who, estranged from his family for nearly 20 years, returns home (in 1986) with a long-neglected brain tumor. We learn that the tumor has destroyed Gabriel’s ability to form new memories, and that many of the intervening years have been lost to him. His father Henry (J.K. Simmons) researches potential treatments and finds promise in music therapy, which does indeed end up “unlocking” Gabriel.
For Brain Awareness Week, the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function organized the New York premier of the film, followed by a Q&A with Dr. Sacks and others involved with the film. Judging by the audience applause, there were two rock stars on stage that night: longtime Grateful Dead drummer Mickey Hart, who was involved with the film from the start and is a supporter of the Institute (and worked with Sacks and the real-life Gabriel), and Sacks. Joining them were the film’s director, Jim Kohlberg; Dr. Concetta Tomaino, executive director and co-founder (with Sacks) of the Institute; and film actors Scott Adsit (Gabriel’s neurologist; fans of “30 Rock” may not be able to keep themselves from expecting him to morph into neurotic television writer Pete Hornberger) and Cara Seymour, who plays Gabriel’s mother. The conversation ranged from a description of the ability of aphasic patients to sing, despite their loss of speech, to the concept of music as trance and ritual, and the universal vibrations that connect us as humans.
This is a film about the relationship between music and memory, the reconnection of a father and son, and the terrible loss of history neurological damage can cause. The movie is earnest and emotional, and it has some rockin’ music, including a great scene in which Henry, now desperate to relate to his son in any way possible, dives into Gabriel’s music, and the audience is treated to an audio montage of Dylan, Donovon, Steppenwolf and, of course, the Dead. One of the most notable things about the film, I think, are its acknowledgment of music’s ability to help re-establish connections, and the credit it gives to the work of the music therapist (played by Julia Ormond, and loosely based on Dr. Tomaino and her work). If you’re interested in neuroscience or you love music—or, better yet, both—I recommend giving Music a watch.