Children, obey your parents in the Lord, for this is right.
“Honor your father and mother” —this is the first com-
mandment with a promise: “so that it may be well with
you and you may live long on the earth.”
And, fathers, do not provoke your children to anger, but
bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.
Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.
It was just a few minutes into this story of conflict and reconciliation that I was reminded of some of the films back in the Sixties and its “generation gap” —such as The Graduate, Easy Rider, and especially of the one in which an enraged father kills his own “hippy” daughter, Joe. Director Jim Kohlberg and scriptwriters Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks have based their film on the essay “The Last Hippie,’ a case study by neurologist and author Oliver Sachs. You might recall that the latters’ work inspired the powerful film Awakenings.
This story begins with New York suburban dwellers Henry and Helen Sawyer (J. K. Simmons and Cara Seymour) receiving a call from a Manhattan hospital that the son they have not seen during the 18 years since he stormed out of their house is a patient. Picked up from the street, the homeless man has a brain tumor, benign, but still calling for an operation to save his life because it is still growing. The operation leaves Gabriel (Lou Taylor Pucci) almost catatonic, unable to retain new memories.
Transferred to a rehabilitation clinic, Gabriel is almost totally uncommunicative, barely responding to none of the staff or his parents. Through flashbacks we see that the father was a great lover of music from the 40s and 50s, with the father quizzing his son, and the boy able to tell when the song was written and all. A prize gift to the boy was a trumpet, such an important instrument in the time of Bing Crosby and the Dorseys. Then came Gabriel’s teen years, the Sixties, rock music, Nixon and the Vietnam War. Now replacing the trumpet with an electric guitar, the son is leader of a band that practices in the basement Nixon-supporter father and rebel son are at loggerheads, the breaking point coming when the band plays at their high school and one of the members burns the American flag in protest to the war. The parents had been in the audience, and When Gabriel had taken the flag and waved it around the stage, they leave. When Gabriel arrives home a big quarrel erupts which leads to Gabriel’s leaving home.
The staff comes running one day when Gabriel plays the trumpet his parents had brought to him. He plays part of “The Marseillaise,” but soon stops, becoming withdrawn again. And yet it is clear that music somehow reaches him. When all of the usual treatments fail and the doctor tells the parents that nothing can be dome to help their son, Henry, while surfing the Internet, comes upon the work of musical therapist Dianne Daly (Julia Ormond), who has worked with brain-damaged people. At Henry’s insistence she plays music from the Bing Crosby era that he and his son had listened to so often, but none of the songs arouse Gabriel. After a lot of trial and error, she discovers the key to getting Gabriel to talk. She randomly selects from an album the Beatles’ “All You Need Is Love.” This begins with their sampling of the French national anthem, and Gabriel becomes alert again, but this time he does not withdraw as he had earlier when he had played it on his trumpet. The Beatles’ song continues, with Gabriel keeping time and showing his delight. Now he can talk about his love for the song, what he was doing and what was transpiring in the world and his family when the song was popular. The same goes for “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Gabriel can remember everything up to 1968, but nothing afterward. He is unaware that his uncle, after whom he was named is dead, or that his best friend in his band was killed in Vietnam. Something happens to the father that drives him to want badly to reconnect with his son. He immerses himself in the music that he had once despised, including the Grateful Dead, his son being a Deadhead. His conversations with his son make him aware that their past love of music had been on the father’s terms, not the son’s. It was always the boy having to listen and responding to Henry’s music, never the other way around.
Many delightful moments follow, such as Gabriel laughing and saying that he was right about Nixon, this after Henry has reported that the President had resigned in disgrace. Gabriel is even able to approach the attractive young woman (Mia Maestro) who hands out plates of food at the cafeteria. When she reveals that her name is Celia, he starts singing “Cecelia.” (Which is a bit of an anachronism, the song being recorded in 1970 by Simon and Garfunkel.)
This film should appeal to all who love music, especially that of the Sixties. The transformation of the father from a self-concerned person into one who overcomes his hatred of rock music and embraces it for the sake of his son is a joy to watch. Henry has learned that real love, as the apostle Paul wrote in another letter, “does not insist on its own way” and “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.” And so does Gabriel. Their time together and the music they share does not heal the son entirely, bit it does sustain and connect two souls badly in need of each other.
For reflection/Discussion 1. Has your family been divided over politics, music, or other issues? Have you been able to resolve them or still relate despite the differences?
2. How have both Henry and Gabriel violated Paul’s admonition to the fathers and children of Ephesus?
3. The review neglects Helen, but how do you see her growth? Do you think a few years earlier she would have talked over with Henry her going to work, even sought his “permission” ?
4. How were such songwriters as Bob Dylan and the Beatles secular prophets? What ones do you think fill that role now?
5. How do the words that we hear from The Grateful Dead’s song “Truckin’” fit with the story, “what a long strange trip it’s been” ?
6. What role does memory play in our lives? How do we lose much of our identity without it? How is memory central to the Judaeo-Christian faith? Using a concordance, see how many times the word “remember” and “memory” appears in the Bible.