PARK CITY - There are mandatory Sundance checklist events that have to be marked off before you're actually at the Festival.
 
A few of mine:
 
You have to see Harvey Weinstein. [Check. He was at the midnight showing of "Silent House," which I'd review except that Drew McWeeny has deconstructed it admirably.]
 
You have to identify a celebrity nemesis and keep bumping into them, even though they're completely unaware that they're stalking you. [Two years ago, Parker Posey was my celebrity nemesis, which was both fun and predictable. This year, Morgan Spurlock and I are on the same Headquarters schedule. Spurlock doesn't know that he was also my celebrity nemesis at Comic-Con two years ago.]
 
You have to see a movie co-starring Lou Taylor Pucci. [To be honest, I actually didn't see Pucci in a single movie last Sundance, but two years ago, I had a two-day period where I saw him in "The Informers," "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and the movie formerly known as "Arlen Faber." Pucci's Sundance ubiquity is only increased by my feeling that he's a poor man's Joseph Gordon Levitt, allowing me to conflate Levitt Sundance movies with Pucci Sundance movies.]
 
I believe that the 2011 Sundance Film Festival is Joseph Gordon Levitt-free and I'm pretty sure that Lou Taylor Pucci's only Sundance flick this year is "The Music Never Stopped," which happened to be the screening that kicked off my busy Friday (Jan. 21).
 
I don't know exactly how much I have to say about "The Music Never Stopped," but whatever it is, it'll be after the break...
 
Playing out-of-competition in the Festival's Premieres program, "The Music Never Stopped" is based on the Oliver Sacks case study "The Last Hippy" and marks the acceptably uneven directing debut of Jim Kohlberg.
 
The movie opens in 1986 with parents Henry (J.K. Simmons) and Helen (Cara Seymour) shocked to discover that after having been missing for the past two decades, their son Gabriel (Pucci) has turned up in a hospital suffering from serious brain damage. A massive tumor has put him in a semi-catatonic state and prevented him from making new memories. He's also afflicted with a horribly scruffy beard. Even after surgery, Gabriel is convinced it's still 1968, which happens to have been a formative year in his relationship with his parents.
 
It also happens to have been a formative year in his musical development. With the help of a music therapist (Julia Ormond), it becomes clear that certain musical favorites are so connected with Gabriel's memories that when those songs are playing, he can become fully lucid, albeit still trapped in 1968.
 
Scripted by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks, "The Music Never Stopped" uses an impressive assortment of pivotal late-'60s hits -- Bob Dylan, The Beatles and, particularly, The Grateful Dead are practically supporting characters -- to tie pivotal late-'60s social concerns with pivotal moments between Gabriel and Henry (and to a lesser degree, Helen).
 
It takes a long time for "The Music Never Stopped" to ease into its dual purposes of musical thematic analysis and period flashbacks, with Kohlberg proving particularly awkward in introducing the conceit and developing it, particularly when Gabriel is mostly non-responsive. For a while, Gabriel's only dialogue is doing sweeping, less-than-profound analysis of different classic rock chestnuts, which makes for an annoying character when that's all he can contribute. The movie stumbles around, introducing subplots which never get mentioned again -- Mom has to get a job! -- and could probably be trimmed on that end before its theatrical release. 
 
As Gabriel finally begins to make progress, the movie also becomes more comfortable in its exploration of subjective memory and the ability of music to enhance, alter or trigger memories. By the end, "The Music Never Stopped" is hitting its emotional marks pretty consistently, thanks in no small part to the performances by its leading men.
 
Versatile even by expansive character actor standards, Simmons is just a pleasure to watch, showcasing Henry's stubbornness, but also his vulnerability. Henry is too often written as a bit of a fuddy-duddy who initially can't be convinced that music evolved after 1951, but Simmons never gives in to what would be an easy caricature. He also weathers the bad hairpiece that tells us the story is in 1968.
 
Simmons is more believable in playing Henry's two ages than Pucci is. Gabriel's a tough character, because he has to be 35, but you'd presumably want the same actor playing Gabriel at 18. Figuring a younger actor made-up to look old would look less silly than an older actor made-up to look young, Kohlberg went with Pucci, an all-too-boyish 25-year-old actor. I never bought Gabriel as an adult, much less an adult who had presumably gone through the struggles it's implied he experienced, but Pucci still hits many fine notes of wonderment and confusion as the character comes to understand his limitations.
 
As Gabriel's high school flame Tamara, Tammy Blanchard is a hilariously implausible 18, but makes up for it with a great scene playing her own age.
 
The solid cast also features Scott Adsit, Mia Maestro and James Urbaniak, as well as Seymour and Ormond, who go from integral to wasted once Kohlberg found the heart of the movie.
 
I'm assuming production was cut a heck of a deal on music rights, because there are whole Sundance films with budgets lower than the standard licensing costs for a Beatles song. It's not often you get your music name-checked as being psychologically magical, so I can see why artists would sign on.
 
Of the four movies I saw on Friday at Sundance, "The Music Never Stopped" was probably the least impressive, but it already has distribution, having been snagged by Roadside Attractions earlier this week.
 
Other Fien Print reviews from the 2011 Sundance Film Festival: