Schmaltz isn’t always a bad thing. It’s just usually a bad thing since it tells us how to feel, eschews genuine emotion in favor of forced sentiment, and cheapens emotional payoff. The Music Never Stopped is undoubtedly schmaltzy. It’s a feel-good father-son relationship story that relies on nostalgia of classic rock in order to bolster its real-life narrative about a brain-damaged man tapping into his memories through the songs he loved. However, the film never gets to the point where the sappiness is unbearable, and that in large part is due to the tremendous performances of lead actors J.K. Simmons and Lou Taylor Pucci.
After twenty years wondering where their son Gabe (Pucci) has been, his parents Henry (Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour) discover that he’s been admitted into the hospital with a brain tumor. The tumor has made it difficult for Gabe to not only interact normally, but also to form new memories and access older memories. Henry, who parted with Gabe on bad terms, is already at a loss for how to connect to his son. However, Henry soon discovers (with the help of a music therapist played by Julia Ormand) that Gabe comes alive when he listens to his favorite music: mainly 60s classic rock like The Beatles, Cream, Bob Dylan, and The Grateful Dead. Henry must learn to reconnect with his son not only in terms of coping with his son’s brain damage, but also in repairing the emotional damage between the two.
The Music Never Stopped is painfully on the nose. The light guitar score is a lazy emotional cue and characters needlessly comment on the emotional situation when their performances are more than enough to clue us in to the conflict at hand. A father-son bonding story is already filled with depth and director Jim Kohlberg is too eager to hammer home the emotional beats.
The use of classic rock also feels lazy. Gabe and Henry both love music, but Gabe’s love only seems to extend to greatest hits. In my experience, people who love music are far more aware of deeper cuts and less-popular bands. I don’t have a problem with Gabe loving The Beatles or The Grateful Dead as much as I mind that the songs he connects to are “All You Need Is Love” and “Truckin”. I understand that when our emotions sync with a particular song, we don’t necessarily choose the song. However, a music aficionado like Gabe should be more into obscure stuff.
Despite the schmaltz and the simplistic music choices, the emotional core of the film is carried beautifully by Simmons and Pucci. I’m a big fan of Simmons and even though he’s usually relegated to supporting roles, he can easily end up stealing a film. Here, he’s given center stage and does a magnificent job. He takese Henry past being gruff-dad-who’s-disappointed in son and makes the character feel sad, regretful, but also able to grow and develop. Pucci also does terrific work as his energy and enthusiasm lights up a scene. It’s an expressive performance but he’s also able to capture the subtlety of Gabe as we can see his cognition slowly fade from his eyes every time a song ends. Together, Simmons and Pucci make the schmaltzy story feel warm and uplifting if not always authentic.
The Music Never Stopped is a feel-good guilty pleasure. It doesn’t earn the warm-and-fuzzy feeling it conjures up but it does take its time with the pacing and letting the characters develop. However, for a film that’s about the healing power of music, it doesn’t go for the deep tracks or anything incredibly insightful beyond “music affects people deeply.” Thankfully, Simmons, Pucci, and a strong supporting cast help carry the film to where you’re invested in the characters and their story even though they’re living in a Hallmark movie.
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