Portola Valley producer/director Jim Kohlberg, a New Yorker gone local in 1997, has brought home a low-budget indie movie with a million-dollar soundtrack. 1960s hits, some rarely licensed for films, add to the texture of The Music Never Stopped. It’s based on a true-life story of an amnesia case’s partial recovery. Thanks to musicians calling musicians, Kohlberg got to use some key songs of the 1960s for his very low budget film.
The Music Never Stopped is a fictionalized version of a case Dr. Oliver Sacks described in his 1995 book An Anthropologist on Mars: Seven Paradoxical Tales. One “Greg F.”, severely brain damaged from a tumor, was able to recover some of his memories through listening to the rock records of the 1960s.
Playing the father of the amnesia sufferer is familiar character actor J. K. Simmons, best known for his role as conniving publisher J. Jonah Jameson in the Spider-Man films.
Via telephone, I interviewed Kohlberg and the co-star of The Music Never Stopped, Lou Taylor Pucci. Pucci plays Gabriel, the music-loving invalid who is able to reconnect with his estranged father through his love of the Grateful Dead.
RvB: What was the origin of The Music Never Stopped as a film?
Kohlberg: A friend of mind who known the screenwriter sent me the script. It had been sitting around at Sony Pictures for 12 years, seemingly never to be made. I fell in love with it, and wanted to do it, but the music clearances were a big issue, I needed to get the music industry behind the film…
RvB: Was it the music budget that Sony was most concerned about?
Kohlberg: It wasn’t about price in that sense. Though this was a low budget film, we knew we needed to get these iconic bands on board. Bob Dylan and the Grateful Dead got on very early.
RvB: Where did you film this?
Kohlberg: NYC, the Bronx and the environs, Mar 1- April 5, 2010. Five weeks of one of the worst winters on record.
RvB: What are the differences between the Oliver Sachs case study and this fictionalized version?
Kohlberg: They’re very alike in the medical symptoms of the brain tumor, and also some of the facts of how the father got through to the Grateful Dead. The screenwriter Gwyn Lurie did a magnificent job turning it into a character-driven story about the relationship between a father and a son, and how the ‘60s broke them apart.
Lou Taylor Pucci: When I read for the part of Gabriel, I realized the main character is actually Gabriel’s father; Gabriel is really a glorified supporting role.
RvB: You’re a young man—did you care much about this ‘60s music?
Pucci: It doesn’t feel like the music itself is stuck in its time. If anything, it’s more accessible than it was 40 years ago, with the Beatles being on iTune. It’s not like I have an iPod, though, I listen to a radio. My family is very musical…I’ve got that in my background.
RvB: Did you approach anyone for help on the research for this story?
Pucci: I was given the incredible privilege of talking to Oliver Sacks, to ask him how the character would get something and when he wouldn’t…I asked a lot of question—I learned a little guitar from him, also.
RvB: JK Simmons is the big revelation in this. It brought out sides of him I hadn’t seen, since he’s usually playing pugnacious middle managers. He’s actually quite good looking in a rangy way, enough to have been a western movie star. In fact, I see that he played Buffalo Bill once…
Kohlberg: I hope he gets discovered. I hope that this will be for JK what The Visitor was for Richard Jenkins.
Pucci: He was the easiest man to work with, no problem at all. Older actors can be jaded, they might know you for a month or too, and they might say “hi” to you at Sundance. They can have their ways, and be set in them. But JK Simmons is a regular dude, so insanely open to trying different things. This is such a huge part, and he’s so ready for it.
(Pucci and Ormond in a scene from The Music Never Stopped.)
RvB: Julie Ormond was also quite good as the music therapist. She’s had an interesting career. She’s been presented as a conventional starlet, taking over from Audrey Hepburn in the remake of Sabrina. And she starred in one of Peter Greenway’s most difficult films, The Baby of Macon… She was in David Lynch’s Inland Empire, too. She always struck me as someone who had too much unease and gravity for the kind of glamour material she was getting offered.
Kohlberg: I wouldn’t want to speculate on her career choices, but I thought she was excellent in Smilla’s Sense of Snow. She did us a favor by coming on really early. Her trust in me gave the film a level of credibility to the acting community. She’s attracted to parts where the characters are strong and intellectual, because she herself has a real intellectual point of view.
Pucci: She digs into the research, and gets to know her character so well that she seems very comfortable when she arrives. Her acting is very free and raw and easy.
RvB: How did you become an actor, Lou?
Pucci: I was sitting in front of a set and my mom put on VHS tapes with Oliver and Sound of Music on it, and that was it. My mom was just that awesome, she installed music in my life. She was also a drummer. I grew up seeing my Dad on stage, so it never made me nervous. I was a really shy kid when I was young, but I started feeling at home on stage. Later film became a part of my life. Then I had to learn to change my mannerisms from an exaggerated theater actor…I had to lose anything that has to do with a sense of theater.
RvB: And how did you become a producer?
Kohlberg: 12 years ago a friend in SF and I were looking at a bunch of different movies. We wanted to produce one…and that film became Two Family House…then our film Trumbo was released by Samuel Goldwyn 3 years ago.
We learned how to produce good small movies, and obviously how to distribute them, since distribution is the bane of the small independent producer. Fortunately, Roadside Attraction bought The Music Never Stopped right before its successful run at Sundance. Anyone who likes it when they see it, please email and tweet everybody.