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A Conversation With… J.K. Simmons
Actor in The Music Never Stopped
An official selection of the Sundance Film Festival 2011
Interviewed by Rebecca McClary, MA, MT-BC, ATH Editor of Music Therapy
"It takes a long time for Henry (the father) to really open himself, to extend himself and meet on Gabriel’s (the son's) terms... "
Michelle Gregg, ATH Senior Editor: Hello everyone and thank you so much for joining us for another exclusive All Things Healing interview in our "A Conversation With" series. Our focus today is Music Therapy - specifically a new major motion picture that shows us the importance that Music Therapy can play in our lives. Rebecca McClary who is our very talented, and very dedicated Editor of the All Things Healing Music Therapy Page is here to conduct today's super exciting interview!
Rebecca learned of a new film that was released the first week of April called THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED. She reached out to ask for permission to publish the trailer on our Music Therapy Page - and what she came back with is today's very special guest, J.K. Simmons! J.K. is an actor who often plays authority and father figures, as he does in this film. Readers, you will know J.K. as Chief Will Pope in the very popular TV series The Closer, and as Dr. Emil Skoda in Law and Order… and you'll also know him as J. Jonah Jameson in the fabulous Spider Man movies.
When I found out that J.K. was joining us today, I did a little digging and realized that he has been in just about everything! He works his on-screen magic via both television and the big screen and he’s done quite a bit of voice over work as well. I really love all of J.K.'s characters, but perhaps my favorite role of J.K.'s is as Mac MacGuff in the movie Juno. I'm sure that we'll love his role as Gabriel's father Henry in THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED as well… So welcome J.K. and welcome Rebecca!
Thanks so much for being here today and I'll just let you two get started…
Rebecca: Alright, thank you!
" ...the journey of the movie becomes about how we can reclaim the mind of Gabriel and how can we heal the wounds caused by the conflict. Ultimately it’s through the power of music and the perseverance of the father’s love."
Rebecca: Well, J.K., I want to thank you for taking the time to talk to me about your work in THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED. The movie is essentially a story about a father and a son and the healing power of music. Can you tell us what drew you to the role of Henry Sawyer, Gabriel’s father?
J.K.: Well, I was very busy actually on a musical project in New York a little over a year ago when my agent first contacted me about this and said there’s this good script you should read and the director wants to meet you for dinner tonight and I said, “There’s no way, I’m too busy, you know… sorry!”
And then I read the script on my flight back to L.A. and immediately regretted that I had blown off that meeting because Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks, who wrote the script, had crafted one of the best screenplays I’ve read in years. And they interweave the medical story and the family drama and the music aspect of it so wonderfully that I immediately called my agent and said, “Please, please, please. I’ll fly right back to New York. I just want to meet this guy and do this movie.” Fortunately, Jim Kohlberg, the director, was coming back to L.A., so it all had a happy ending.
Rebecca: Oh, very nice! You know, music often is used as a tangible representation that represents the generational gap between children and parents. In the movie, this is evident in Henry’s love of Big Band music and Gabriel’s love for the psychedelic music of the 1960s. The father and son’s many differences also included strongly opposing views of the Vietnam War and politics in general which culminated in a separation that lasted twenty years. These characters held on tightly to their principles even in the face of their estrangement. What message do you think this holds for us today?
J.K.: Well, I’ve always viewed this film primarily as a story of the healing power of not only music, but the power of love and the possibility of redemption. Generation gaps and other kinds of dramatic schisms can be healed if people truly love and are willing to work hard. In this case it’s a very dramatic version of that. Henry, my character, and Lou Pucci’s character, Gabriel the son, have a screaming fight in the 60’s when he’s a 17 year old hippie. They’re fighting about all of those things that lots of fathers and sons had screaming fights about in the 60’s. Gabriel storms out the front door and my character Henry screams, “Don’t bother coming back!” That’s one of those moments that most of us have at some point in our lives, where things come out of our mouths in anger that we wish we could take back.
In this case it results in Gabriel disappearing for eighteen years and turning up on the streets later with this massive brain tumor that’s affected his memory and, well, his life. Father and son lived in this self-imposed purgatory that whole time. And then, the journey of the movie becomes, you know, how can we reclaim the mind of Gabriel and how can we heal the wounds caused by that conflict. Ultimately it’s through the power of music and the perseverance of the father’s love. And the mother… we don’t want to leave Mom out.
In The Music Never Stopped Gabriel really connects to the music of the Grateful Dead.
Rebecca: Of course not! In the movie it seems to be the music of The Grateful Dead in particular that Gabriel really connects to. Because of the brain tumor and the damage that occurred in that part of the brain, he can’t recall or create new memories. So he is basically stuck back in the 1960’s even though the movie takes place in the 80’s. So, it’s interesting how music can connect you to such a time and a place.
J.K.: Yeah, absolutely.
Rebecca: What did you want your character to communicate after eighteen years of separation from his son?
J.K.: I think at first my character Henry had sort of retreated into his own private little world and had gone even further back into his past. When the music opens, I’m just sitting listening to music. Wow, I don’t even remember what song it was. It might’ve been Till There Was You. Either that or some big band something, which were Henry’s big favorites. When Gabriel first reappears, it’s shocking and miraculous and terrifying at the same time because of his condition. It takes a long time for Henry to really open himself, to extend himself and meet on Gabriel’s terms, rather than on the father’s terms and that’s what has to happen I think. One or both parties need to be willing to do that in order to heal those kinds of wounds.
Rebecca: Absolutely. It seems that once your character does come to those terms, he embodies the experience that many parents go through when they are searching for a mechanism to connect to their child. In the movie, Henry finds Dr. Dianne Daly, a music therapist, played by Julia Ormond. Had you heard of music therapy prior to working on this movie?
"And obviously, we mostly have our writers and Julia Ormond to thank for the music therapy angle which I think they handled really intelligently and passionately."
J.K.: Yeah, absolutely. I had actually studied music in college. My original career plan was to be the next Leonard Bernstein. I obviously had some segues in there through musical theatre and this and that, but things ended up with me doing what I’m doing now. I didn’t study music therapy per se, but I did have a couple of friends in undergrad school who went on to study music therapy and one who became a music therapist. It was my understanding that it was a very young and often misunderstood or underappreciated science at the time. Many mainstream scientists just saw it as, you know, okay, sure, fine, Music calms the savage breast, but it’s not really science. Of course, over the last several decades it’s become a much more universally accepted form of healing.
Rebecca: I agree. It seems that there is a lot of advocacy happening right now. You know, there’s this movie coming out, there’s a book coming out on music therapy with the main character as a music therapist. This movie is really groundbreaking in that it actually portrays the contemporary practice of music therapy as a legitimate healing modality. I do want to thank you so much for bringing this story to life and helping to highlight what a powerfully positive contribution music can make to a healthier existence. It’s really exciting the work that you’re doing.
J.K.: Thank you. I was absolutely thrilled to be a part of this story for a number of reasons and that is certainly is one of them. And obviously, we mostly have our writers and Julia Ormond to thank for the music therapy angle which I think they handled really intelligently and passionately.
The music of the 60’s had initially torn the father and son apart and then it comes to represent a bridge in the father/son relationship.
Rebecca: Well, it’s really exciting. In the movie, I want to talk a little about how the music was used. The music of the 60’s had initially torn the father and son apart and then it comes to represent a bridge in the father/son relationship. And though music therapy is not going to erase the physical trauma, it does provide a way for Henry and Gabriel to connect in new ways. Have you experienced any situations in which music has helped you to connect with others?
J.K.: Oh, I think music, even when you’re not consciously aware of it or consciously striving for that, I think that music absolutely connects people. My kids, my oldest especially now is on the brink of the teenage years and is listening to music that I would have very little interest in on my own. But I'm interested because it’s what he’s into, and he’s performing, too… Both my kids are very musical – singing and playing a variety of instruments. But, I always thought that music connects people, and I feel the same way about what I do now. All those years when I was more involved in performing music than in acting I always felt that my job as a singer or performer was to communicate and to share what some genius like Brahms had brought into the world and to connect people today to the genius of old composers who left us these great works that just make us feel, and that connect us to the whole human condition. I was, I continue to be I guess, a little overly romantic in my notions of what music and the arts and theatre and all that can do. You know, even though I’m a jaded old pro now, it’s nice to find a piece like THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED that really hearkens me back to that romantic, passionate, and some would say naïve, side of my personality.
Rebecca: Well, I think you said it beautifully. I think that music has those tendencies to really connect people with one another and explores the sensitive side to life. One of the movie’s central tenets relates to music’s potential to heal. Do you have any personal experiences regarding music as a healing modality?
J.K.: Nothing remotely as dramatic as this film, and again, I know next to nothing about the real science of music therapy. But in smaller terms I know, and I see this with my kids too, that any emotional discomfort or emotional issues can always be affected by music. It can be positive or negative. Music can have an effect on the teenage brain and, certainly on any brain, children or adults. But I think the most visible effect, perhaps, happens in brains that are the most receptive.
Rebecca: Right. Yes, I think that on an intuitive level people really do understand the power of music to comfort and to heal. It’s something that’s been around since the beginning of time in many cultures. And here we are today still exploring it and its being used across the nation and across the world. We’re very fortunate to have this wonderful healing modality. And now, is there something that you’d like our readers and listeners to know about you right now?
"I’m as big a fan of this story as of any that I’ve been involved in, in a long, long time... it’s a story that appeals largely because of the range of music."
J.K.: About me? Just that I’m as big a fan of this story as of any that I’ve been involved in, in a long, long time. And I know we keep talking about the idea and the plot of the movie but I would encourage people to NOT watch the trailer, and not learn everything there is to know about the movie and just go see the movie when it opens in your city and let the story unfold. To me it’s a story that appeals largely because of the range of music. It has a great appeal to a wide demographic, as the money people like to say, which to me means that there are lots of different kinds of people that will enjoy the film.
Rebecca: Great! I’m looking forward to watching it. It’s going to be such a treat seeing music therapy represented up on the big screen.
J.K.: Represented by Julia Ormond with her 80’s hair-do.
Rebecca: I can’t wait to see her. What’s on your immediate horizon as far as what are you working on next?
The Music Never Stopped opens nationwide on April 8.
J.K.: Well, we go back to work next week on The Closer, my TV show that I’ve been doing, well, we’re starting our 7th season which is a real blessing. Partly because it’s a fun show to do, and partly because it’s a good job that keeps me employed and keeps me at home where I can see my family every day. Often times, as with THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED, I have to go away to shoot. We shot in New York for five weeks just about a year ago. I have a couple of films I just finished. One is called GEEZERS, which is a wacky, mockumentary, comedy and then another one called CONTRABAND, which is a Mark Wahlberg sort of action movie. You know, I’m trying to stay busy.
Rebecca: Well, we wish you the best of luck in your career and thank you so much for joining us today.
J.K.: Thank you. It was my absolute pleasure.
Michelle: Yes, thank you so much J.K. and thanks to Rebecca, too. And hopefully all of you out there listening right now will watch THE MUSIC NEVER STOPPED. And when is the opening date?
J.K.: April 1st in select theaters and then April 8 nationwide.
Michelle: April 1st, okay. So, everybody listening out there be sure to go check it out. Thanks so much again. Take care all.
Editor's note from Rebecca McClary: For more information about music therapy please read an Introduction to Music Therapy. For information on how to become a music therapist or to find a music therapist in your area contact The American Music Therapy Association, Inc. (AMTA) at http://musictherapy.org/.
Have a comment or question? Visit our Music Therapy Forum to start or join a conversation.
More About J.K. Simmons
Jonathan Kimble "J.K." Simmons is an American actor.
He was born in Detroit, Michigan, attended the University of Montana and later was a member of the Seattle Repertory Theatre. Prior to his extensive film and television career, J.K. was a Broadway actor and singer. He has said that he originally planned to be the next Leonard Bernstein.
Currently J.K. is pleased to be filming the 7th season of TNT's "The Closer" and to continue to play wonderful characters on the big screen.
J.K. lives with his wife and two children in Los Angeles.
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More About The Music Never Stopped
J.K. Simmons Lou Taylor Pucci Cara Seymour Julia Ormond
Based on the Essay "The Last Hippie" by Oliver Sacks
Screenplay by Gwyn Lurie and Gary Marks
Directed and Produced by Jim Kohlberg
The Grateful Dead
The Rolling Stones
Crosby, Stills & Nash