Loosely based on a case study chronicled by neurology populist Oliver Sacks, “The Music Never Stopped” focuses on a generation gap almost literally frozen in the 1960s. Nearly 20 years after the end of that turbulent decade, the film’s young protagonist experiences brain damage that erases his intervening memory, his recovery thus reigniting the disagreements that had severed parental contact way back then. Directorial bow for indie producer Jim Kohlberg is a touching if uncomplicated drama that’s modest in scale and commercial prospects for Roadside Attractions’ March 4 release.

A latenight call informs staid upstate New York couple Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen Sawyer (Cara Seymour) that their long-lost only child has been taken to a nearby hospital. Thirty-six-year-old Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) has a benign tumor that is surgically removed, but it had already grown so large that it has damaged areas of his brain, notably those handling recent memory. As a result, he seems to think it’s been just a short time since he stormed out of the family home for good at age 19.

At first he barely communicates at all, until Henry — who, to his consternation, has been ordered to take time off work, leaving him plenty of time for awkward hospital visits — realizes that Gabe rouses at least briefly from near-catatonia in response to music. The older man enlists music therapist Dianne Daly (a radiant Julia Ormond), who makes remarkable progress by more aggressively pursuing this tactic.

Yet the whole business re-opens painful wounds for Henry, who had bonded with his preadolescent son over music listening and trivia, albeit strictly limited to Dad’s Tin Pan Alley tastes. When Junior got into acid rock (even starting his own garage band), all other sorts of youthful rebellion followed. Dad somewhat naively still blames the music itself for the subsequent bitter familial split.

Nicely handled as it by Kohlberg, and by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks’ screenplay (which spent years in development at one major studio after another), “The Music Never Stopped” could have been told more economically, or its running time filled out with a subplot or three. As is, once Henry grudgingly begins schooling himself in rock, pic has few surprises in store.

We might have learned at least a bit about what Gabe was up to these last several years. And Helen’s obstinate insistence on getting her first paid job in her 60s is heralded, then inexplicably dropped as a matter of narrative import. Flashbacks to original father-son strife two decades earlier (thesps even play the younger parents, none too convincingly) are a tad disappointing in that the incidents and conflicts portrayed are so routine, even banal.

Still, the novel premise and otherwise nuanced performances are enough to hold attention. Pucci lends engaging physical expressiveness to Gabe’s mental state, which surges and fades like a fragile transmission; Simmons poignantly underplays what could have been a stock grouch-redeemed-by-love arc. Seymour is excellent if a bit underutilized.

Budgetary limitations are clear — probably a lion’s share of the expense went toward getting rights to numerous golden oldies — though assembly is decent all around, with special credit due Jennifer Dehghan’s thoughtfully detailed interior production design.

The Music Never Stopped

  • Production: A Roadside Attractions release of an Essential Pictures production in association with Peter Newman/InterAL Prods. Produced by Julie W. Noll, Jim Kohlberg, Peter Newman, Greg Johnson. Co-producer, George Paaswell. Executive producers, Neal Moritz, Brad Luft. Directed by Jim Kohlberg. Screenplay, Gwyn Lurie, Gary Marks, based on the essay "The Last Hippie" by Oliver Sacks.
  • Crew: Camera (color, DV-to-35mm), Stephen Kasmierski; editor, Keith Reamer; music, Paul Cantelon; production designer, Jennifer Dehghan; art director, Michael Ahern; set decorators, Mary Fellows, Diana Salzberg; costume designer, Jacki Roach; sound (Dolby Digital), Michael Barosky, Daniel McIntosh; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Lewis Goldstein; assistant director, Don Julien; casting, Antonia Dauphin. Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (Premieres), Jan. 21, 2011. Running time: 105 MIN.
  • With: With: J.K. Simmons, Lou Taylor Pucci, Cara Seymour, Julia Ormond, Tammy Blanchard, Mia Maestro, Scott Adsit, James Urbaniak, Peggy Gormley, Max Antisell.