Lib at Large: The Grateful Dead come alive in 'The Music Never Stopped'
by Paul LiberatoreMarin Independent, marinij.com
March 11th 2011 5:46 AM
There aren't many mainstream movies that have the stamp of approval of Bob Dylan. And the Grateful Dead.
But when first-time director Jim Kohlberg sent them the script for "The Music Never Stopped," a low- budget indie set to hit theaters March 18 with a rocking soundtrack of their music, he was pleased and relieved when he didn't have to wait long for their endorsements.
"I was not going to make this movie without their approval," Kohlberg told me. "Surprisingly, they came on board very quickly, and that created an enormous momentum. I knew then we had a film to make."
As a matter of fact, the Dead's Bob Weir, who's lived in Mill Valley forever, and Sonoma County's Mickey Hart are so behind this flick that they showed up at Sundance in January for its premiere, playing an acoustic set for the Deadheads in Park City.
"The Music Never Stopped" is based on a real life case study, "The Last Hippie," by Dr. Oliver Sacks ("Awakenings"). It's about a high school kid who becomes estranged from his parents in the '60s after his straight-laced father forbids him to go to a Grateful Dead concert.
The 17-year-old disappears into the counterculture for 20 years, surfacing only when he's diagnosed with a brain tumor that ostensibly prevents him from forming new memories, so he can't remember anything after 1968. For example, he thinks Ron "Pig Pen" McKernan, an original member of the band, is still alive
(he died in Corte Madera in 1973).
The only way to rouse him from his catatonic state is to bring him back to that time through classic '60s rock, particularly songs by the Dead. For those who might not know, the Dead were headquartered in Marin for decades.
The irony is that the Dead's music, which once formed the generation gap that divided father and son, ends up bringing them back together. I have to admit that it reminded me a little of one of those saccharine after-school TV specials I used to watch as a kid, but that didn't prevent me from getting a lump in my throat.
"It's a good, heartwarming story," Weir told an interviewer at Sundance. "I loved it."
This story is particularly relevant for Hart, who joined the Institute for Music and Neurologic Function a decade ago and has testified before the U.S. Senate about the power of rhythm and music as a healing force.
"We know it worked on us," Hart said at Sundance. "But we didn't know how powerful it really is."
The character in the movie, played by 25-year-old Lou Taylor Pucci ("Thumbsucker"), is based on the real guy in the study, whom Sacks actually brought to a Grateful Dead concert at Madison Square Garden in 1991.
"He came alive and started to remember the band," Hart recalled. "It brought him out of the darkness. Dr. Sacks was thrilled."
The movie's denouement is a father-son bonding scene at a Grateful Dead concert set in the '80s, the era when the Dead scored their only hit with "Touch of Grey," recorded, incidentally, in the Marin Vets Auditorium.
J.K. Simmons, a veteran character actor you may remember as the eccentric but cool dad in "Juno" (he also has a recurring role on Fox TV's "Raising Hope"), plays the uptight father, who reluctantly studies the Dead's music and gets all decked out in tie-die on the night of the show, knowing it's the only way he can reconcile with his son before it's too late.
For the big concert scene, the director hired Grateful Dead lookalikes, who lip-synch to unreleased tracks of "Truckin'" and "Touch of Grey" from actual Dead shows.
"Even Mickey and Bob felt the concert was well done, and there were no complaints from the Dead community," Kohlberg assured me. "That was a big weight off my shoulders."
Even though I knew the concert was staged, I was still startled when the iconic Jerry Garcia, who died in 1995, walked out on stage, alive once again. I quickly came to my senses, realizing that it was a Jerry doppelganger, but the effect was stunning.
Kohlberg, who's 52 and says he unfortunately missed the '60s by a decade, managed to find a math teacher from Brooklyn who's a dead ringer (pardon the expression) for Garcia. He just had to put a gray wig on him and teach him how to strum a guitar to complete the illusion.
"He looked so much like Jerry that it was scary," Kohlberg said. "He worked shockingly well."
Maybe a little too well.
"He looks so much like Garcia that it even freaked out some of the band members, or the band members' wives," Kohlberg confided to me. "We have a ton of close-ups where I can't tell the difference between Garcia and our guy. But Jerry is such a symbol of the Dead, and, frankly, I think the other band members still miss him dearly. So it was hard for them, and especially for his widow, to see someone who looked so much like him. We had these wonderful close-ups, but they felt some discomfort and we had to cut them."
Probably just as well. In any event, "The Music Never Stopped" is worth seeing, and hearing, especially in a theater with a great sound system. In addition to the Dead and Dylan, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Crosby, Stills & Nash and Buffalo Springfield are on the soundtrack.
It got a not-too-shabby 80 percent approval rating from critics and 89 percent from audiences on Rotten Tomatoes. And it's the rare movie that takes those of us from the '60s generation on a long, strange, nostalgic trip.
Contact Paul Liberatore via e-mail at email@example.com; follow him on Twitter at http://twitter.com/LibLarge. Follow his blog at http://blogs.marinij.com/ad_lib.
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