Author: Gwyn Lurie & Gary Marks
Writer’s Potential: 8
In the mid-1980s, parents try to use music to reconnect to their estranged son, who has a neurological disorder preventing him from accessing his memories.
In 1968, 17-year-old hippie GABRIEL SAWYER wanders through Greenwich Village, passing attractive hare krishnas. After flirting briefly, he gets woozy and has to pause, leaning against a wall until the feeling passes. In 1986, HENRY and HELEN SAWYER (both mid-60s) receive a phone call that Gabriel has been found wandering the streets of New York City. As they drive to the hospital, Henry plays “Till There Was You” from The Music Man on the car radio. This causes him to vividly remember dropping 6-year-old Gabriel off at his first day of school, in 1956, during which the same song played on the car radio. Henry tells his young son about the significance of this song in his life, that it was playing the first time he saw his future wife. Back in 1986, Henry and Helen meet with DR. BISCOW, a neurologist. He explains that Gabriel has an enormous, but benign, brain tumor that is pressing on certain parts of his brain that affect memory. They won’t know the extent of the damage until after they operate. The Sawyers wait tensely for the surgery to finish. Once Gabriel is in recovery, Dr. Biscow asks him a series of questions designed to test his memory. He assesses that Gabriel has reasonably good long-term recall, but his short-term memory has been drastically affected. As the tumor increased in size, it must have gotten harder and harder for Gabriel to form new memories, before he stopped having the ability altogether. The removal of the tumor will not change that, so Gabriel is permanently stuck at whatever time his long-term memories stop at.
In order to compensate, Gabriel suffers from what Biscow calls “joking disease,” which causes him to answer direct questions with glib responses. Henry wants to know if drugs caused all this. Biscow says no—it’s just an irregularity that caused major damage because Gabriel went untreated for at least 20 years. Helen realizes Gabriel left home 20 years earlier, after a falling out with his parents. Over the course of months, Gabriel recuperates, but his memory skills don’t return. He reacts to this by cutting himself off from the world, hiding behind “joking disease,” unable to respond coherently to anyone or anything. Henry has worked as an engineer at Eastman-Kodak for 40 years, but they quietly force him to retire because his mind is no longer on work. He has enough sick days built up to keep him afloat until his pension will kick in, but Henry’s still devastated at the mistreatment.
Henry and Helen bring some of Gabriel’s old possessions to the hospital, hoping to make his room a bit more homey as well as jog some old memories. Among these is an old trumpet. Henry recalls purchasing the trumpet for Gabriel on Christmas, 1956. Gabriel never seemed hugely fond of the trumpet, but Henry has high hopes. Still in 1956, Henry and Gabriel visit the gravesite of Henry’s brother, Gabriel’s namesake, who loved Count Basie, played the trumpet, and died fighting in Korea the same year Gabriel was born. They play Count Basie’s “Kansas City” on a record player. Gabriel asks if they’re playing the song so Uncle Gabriel can hear it in heaven. Henry says he hopes his brother hears it, but they’re actually playing it to remember him. In 1986, Gabriel has trouble sleeping, so a nurse sneaks him a portable radio, so he can listen to a classic-rock station. Later that night, the nurses hear Gabriel blasting the opening notes of the French National Anthem on his trumpet. They rush to his room, where they find him completely lucid.
The next morning, Biscow asks Henry and Helen if Gabriel ever played that song in the past. They say no. Helen speculates that he may have seen it on television, that he could always learn songs by ear quickly. FLORENCE, the nurse, confesses she gave Gabriel a radio. Helen hopes this means he’s coming out of it, but Biscow isn’t so sure. Helen wonders if the medication is helping, but Biscow insists all the medications are for hormone function, not neurologic function. Helen tells Biscow that Henry remembered the current Coca-Cola slogan. Refusing to give them false hope, Biscow tells Helen that he may remember small things from here on in, but that doesn’t mean he’ll make a recovery. Later, Henry and Helen sit with Gabriel, listening to a rock song on the transistor radio. Henry hates the music, but Helen insists she leave it on. The song takes them both back to 1968, when Gabriel played the same song with his garage band. Henry enters the garage and tells them all to go home. It’s dinner time. They frantically try to cover up the stench of cigarette smoke. Henry pretends not to notice.
Some time later, Helen learns Gabriel’s hospital bills are past due. She asks Henry about their financial state, and he gives her some vague non-answers. Helen marches into the Eastman-Kodak office and demands a job. When Henry’s boss refuses, she kindly informs him that this is the least they can do after forcing Henry out, and that she is college-educated, so she’s certain she can handle a lowly secretarial job. Henry is angry to learn she just up and got a job, without consulting him. Henry visits Gabriel at the hospital, causing him to freak out. His vague expectation was that Helen would come, and the presence of Henry disorients him. Henry leaves Gabriel a note reminding him that Dad will come every day at 10:00.
Henry researches at a local library and finds something that could be useful: an article about a college professor studying links between music and memory. Henry visits the professor, DIANNE DALY, and asks about her research. She explains the well-documented research about the effects music has on brain activity. She believes music uses an unknown system of memory that has not yet been tapped. She’s looking to prove this. Gabriel is smitten by an attractive cafeteria worker, CELIA, but he doesn’t realize he’s met her multiple times. Henry brings Dianne to the hospital. She turns his room into a “music lab,” filled with rhythm instruments like drums and tambourines (she has a theory that rhythm alone can tap into the memory). She starts by playing the French national anthem, which thrills Gabriel for a few notes, but after that he gets agitated. Both Dianne and Henry are confused. Dianne suggests Henry bring in records Gabriel would be familiar with from his childhood. Henry brings records of jazz songs and show tunes. Henry quizzes Gabriel on the songs, as he did when Gabriel was a child. Gabriel recalls the information, but he recites it robotically—the music is allowing him to recall, but not connect emotionally.
One night, Dianne hears “All You Need Is Love,” with its Marseillaise introduction, on the radio, and she realizes what Gabriel was listening to that night. The next day, she plays Magical Mystery Tour for him, and he’s suddenly lucid. He describes his love for the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, Cream, and especially the Grateful Dead. She asks him a series of questions, but the only thing that trips him up is the current President. He immediately shuts down and returns to “joking” mode, until Dianne puts on a Grateful Dead album. Gabriel recounts the story of the night he almost saw the Grateful Dead. It was 1968—the same night Henry yelled at Gabriel to come in for dinner. Henry insists Gabriel must go to College Night at his school. Gabriel would rather see the Dead, but that’s not an option in Henry’s mind. Gabriel says he doesn’t even want to go to college—he wants to go to the Village and play music. Henry tells Gabriel he must go to college to learn the tools that will make him a successful musician. At College Night, Henry drags Gabriel from booth to booth. Gabriel asks about Princeton to get Henry off his back. He disappears into the crowd and sneaks out to a van, where his bandmates and secret girlfriend TAMARA wait. Henry busts Gabriel before they have a chance to leave. Angrily, Henry forbids Gabriel from seeing Tamara.
In 1986, Dianne explains Gabriel’s reaction to the rock ‘n’ roll music that spoke to him as a teenager. Henry is angry, feeling that Gabriel should respond more to the music they both loved—jazz. Dianne proves it to them by playing the Grateful Dead for Gabriel. She has to reintroduce herself and explain what she’s doing. She starts asking Gabriel questions, and he brings up a disastrous gig his band played at the high school, during a Vietnam rally. To Gabriel’s surprise, Henry wanted to attend, so he wanted to impress his dad by playing a jam-band cover of “Kansas City.” In the middle of the song, Gabriel burned the flag. This enraged Henry, who reminded Gabriel that his uncle died to protect that flag. When Gabriel got home, Henry had already destroyed his rock ‘n’ roll posters and records, which is what caused Gabriel to leave home and never return. In 1986, Henry is enraged that these are the sorts of things this horrible music helps Gabriel remember—things Henry has been trying hard to forget. Dianne tries to explain the emotional connection between memory and music, but Henry tells her they no longer need her help. Helen apologizes for Henry’s behavior and tells Dianne to keep pushing.
At home, Helen tries to convince Henry that it doesn’t matter what music brings Gabriel back, as long as he’s back. Henry considers it strongly. The next morning, he goes to a used record shop and trades his entire prized record collection for “everything you’ve got after 1958 that’s…loud.” Dianne plays some records for Gabriel. She tells a fable about a lion and a mouse and asks Gabriel to tell the story back to her. He does, but he twists the details, and it’s unclear if he’s kidding or he just can’t remember. Henry arrives at the hospital, surprising Dianne with a copy of Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited. Instantly animated, Gabriel draws Henry into a conversation about the first time he ever played the album.
A montage follows, showing Henry connect with Gabriel through conversations over the music he loved—Donovan, The Byrds, Buffalo Springfield, and the Grateful Dead. Dianne tries to teach Gabriel a brief rhyme. He struggles to speak it back to her, but when she uses the tambourine to give the rhythm, he gets it. She’s pleased. Henry continues listening to the music with Gabriel, but he hates it. One day, Gabriel explains what the lyrics to “Truckin'” by the Grateful Dead mean, how the journey is important, not the destination. Henry actually listens hard to the lyrics and realizes Gabriel’s interpretation is accurate, and also that the song isn’t as horrible or incoherent as he believed. Some time later, Dianne asks Gabriel to recall the rhyme he taught her days ago. Again with the help of the tambourine, he does it. Time passes, and Henry becomes intimately familiar with the music, musicians, and lyrics, learning everything he can to use it as a springboard to get to know Gabriel.
On the radio, Henry hears a DJ talking about a contest that could win two tickets to a sold-out Grateful Dead concert. He frantically scrawls the number down using Helen’s lipstick. Henry takes Gabriel to the cafeteria, where he sees Celia. Henry’s surprised when Gabriel starts making connections even without music. He starts remembering things about Tamara as he talks to Celia. Henry asks Dianne if it would be possible for Gabriel to create new long-term memories using music. Dianne says it’s possible, but it would have to be a song he hasn’t heard before, one that has no clear associations with his past. That night, the DJ is finally giving away tickets to the Dead show. Henry frantically calls, getting a busy signal each time—and promptly has a heart attack from the stress.
Helen visits Gabriel, writing on his calendar that he’s coming home for Christmas. While recovering in the hospital, Henry obsessively listens to the radio, waiting for his chance. Finally, he gets through, talking softly so the nurses won’t find him on the phone after hours. He correctly answers a trivia question, winning the two tickets. Gabriel comes home for Christmas. Henry’s back home, too. He apologizes to Gabriel for tearing down his posters and throwing away his records. Gabriel asks how long ago that ways. Henry reluctantly tells him: 20 years. Gabriel is shocked—to him, it feels like only a few indistinct years have passed. Henry and Helen invite Tamara over. It’s an awkward reunion. She’s married and has children, but he still thinks they’re dating. Henry gives Gabriel his Christmas gift: the Grateful Dead tickets. Gabriel is thrilled. Back at the hospital, Gabriel is shocked to find a new, male cafeteria worker has replaced Celia. Panicking, he flees the hospital and finds his way to Tamara’s childhood home, terrifying her parents. He breaks his ankle trying to climb up to her window.
Dianne has to convince Biscow to allow Gabriel to see the Grateful Dead. Biscow finds her claims dubious and unsupported and has reservations about sending Gabriel into such an unpredictable environment. Dianne insists he has a special connection to the Dead. Henry pleads with Biscow, telling him that it took 20 years to find Gabriel, and Henry needs to have a real conversation with his son, one that he’ll remember. Biscow allows him to go to the concert.
They see a guy selling hemp shirts. Gabriel laughs at the idea that Henry would wear something like that, so Henry buys them both hemp tie-dye shirts. Gabriel is elated to see the Dead. He’s surprised that Pigpen isn’t there. Henry reluctantly explains that Pigpen died years ago. Gabriel seems absolutely normal, more lucid and at home than he’s been since his teen years. The Dead plays a newer song. It causes Gabriel to freeze for a moment, but he gets into the song. Henry realizes this is his moment to have a talk with Gabriel, but he allows his son to simply enjoy his music. They play Grateful Dead songs on the drive home, both of them feeling like this is a perfect night.
A year later, Gabriel frantically searches his hospital room for something, but he can’t remember what. Helen, dressed from head to toe in black, sighs that he misses his father. Gabriel’s confused—he recites the note that Dad comes every day at 10:00. Helen quietly tells Gabriel, and not for the first time, that Henry passed away. Gabriel’s shocked. Helen takes Gabriel to the funeral. She plays a bootleg recording of “Touch of Grey” from the concert Henry and Gabriel attended. The other mourners are a little puzzled by the song choice, but Gabriel stands there, able to remember his father in his old age, on their perfect night.
The Last Hippie is a downbeat tale of father-son relationships and loss. It’s a compelling story that has some problematic flashbacks but is otherwise solid, with mostly well-written characters. The resolution is a bit maudlin, but with the right actors and director, it could turn out great. As written, it merits a consider.
The first act does a pretty good job of establishing the story and characters in subtle ways, particularly the strained relationship between Henry and Gabriel. Although the story itself is fairly slow and not exactly scintillating, the way the writers play with Henry’s perception of his son (mostly rooted in their good times when he was young) versus the reality of his son in adulthood is intriguing and well done. The writers also do a nice job of using the overarching storyline—of Gabriel’s memory loss and the forced connections through sharing music—as metaphors for an old father trying to understand his confusing son.
The writers lose much of this subtlety in the second act, when the emphasis on music-oriented conversations with a lucid Gabriel and excessive flashbacks to 1968 threaten to turn both Henry and Gabriel into silly caricatures instead of multifaceted people. This is problematic mainly because the script doesn’t have a strong narrative to gloss over the on-the-nose dialogue and scenes blandly portraying Henry as a stern taskmaster and Gabriel as an iconoclastic free spirit. Strip away the memory loss, and it’s an incredibly simple story that needs to be about two strong characters. Fortunately, the writers don’t get too ham-fisted with their flashback portrayal of the characters.
The third act is difficult because it’s fairly saccharine, mainly chronicling Henry’s quest to take Gabriel to a Grateful Dead concert and share one perfect evening that his son can actually remember. The right director and especially the right actors could pull it off successfully, taking what reads as overly sentimental on the page and making it into gut-wrenching emotional scenes. This is not the most commercial script, but excellent actors playing these roles could result in awards nominations, maybe even wins, to boost its viability. One false move from the actors and directors, and the whole film comes tumbling down in a tidal wave of syrupy sweetness that will leave audiences annoyed an unaffected.
In the present-day (i.e., 1986) scenes, the characters are very well-written. Henry’s struggle to understand Gabriel is only heightened by Gabriel’s inability to remember anything but their worst moments together. Gabriel is an extremely difficult character that they do a nice job with, doing an excellent job of portraying his transformation from “joking” Gabriel to lucid “teen” Gabriel, using nothing more than dialogue. The flashback portrayal of these characters is a bit more problematic, eschewing the subtlety of the awkward present-day conversation in favor of bland, on-the-nose arguments that bluntly spell out things that are alluded to more subtly in the present. The flashbacks are mostly unnecessary and actually hinder both the story and the character development.
The supporting characters don’t get nearly as much material, but they’re vividly rendered by the writers. Helen is an impressively tough wife, Dianne’s fascination with Gabriel and her joy when he shows signs of improvement is endearing, Biscow’s stern pragmatism is unnerving but believable. The other characters have minimal impact on the story, but the writers give them the same attention and nuance they do to the larger roles.
A similar but less sappy ending would definitely benefit this script, but either way, this script is not particularly commercial. Good casting will improve its chances for awards to improve its viability slightly, but the soundtrack alone (which prominently includes notoriously expensive-to-license acts like the Beatles and Bob Dylan) will inflate this script’s budget to a degree that it may not end up profitable.