Every six months or so it seems a highly personal indie documentary is released that reduces you to tears. So it is with Eric Daniel Metzgar’s movie about his friend, a young New York City guitarist named Jason Crigler, who suffered a massive stroke in 2004. Even if, like me, you’re a softy when it comes to stories of tragedy and triumph (real or fictitious), the waterworks are warranted. After a successful turn on the international festival circuit, this blueprint for how someone can recover from a brain injury has a weeklong run at Manhattan’s Cinema Village, not far from the Lower East Side clubs where Jason was a much-in-demand professional musician.
As corny as it sounds, Jason’s story is a testament to the healing power of determined family members motivated by love. It also provides anecdotal evidence that minds deeply attuned to musical patterns are exceptional. Finally, Life. Support. Music. raises big questions about personal identity, creativity and what makes someone an artist.
With his pregnant wife in the audience, Cringler became ill on stage during a gig and was rushed to a New York hospital. Doctors grimly predicted he would either succumb to the hemorrhage or be a vegetable for the rest of his life. Metzgar, who offers intermittent narration and shot the majority of original footage (at the request of Jason’s parents), artfully conveys the first hours and days of the ordeal with testimony from Jason’s parents, wife Monica, sister Marjorie and a handful of friends. He chronicles the first months in hospital using still photos and puts Marjorie in voiceover, reading excerpts from a journal she kept.
On the 191st day after his brain bleed, Jason was moved to the Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in Boston. There, his rehab sessions were videotaped for training purposes, allowing the audience intimate access to the process. Jason lost his motor skills and, for all intents and purposes, his selfhood. A slight nod of the head required major effort. There were complications and setbacks but his progress was steady and nothing short of miraculous. Metzgar splices in images from Jason’s life with footage he filmed over this two-and-a-half year period. After his baby daughter Ellie was born, the sight of mother, child and father together for the first time—all three in diapers, as Monica recalls thinking—is heartbreaking.
The key to Jason’s recovery, in addition to top-flight medical care, was the resolve of his family to do whatever it took to ensure he got better. When he could no longer remain at Spaulding, doctors suggested he be put in a step-down facility but they refused. Approximately one year after his stroke, they took him home to the Boston apartment where Monica, now working full-time, was living with Ellie. Since he couldn’t meet his own basic needs, the extended family chipped in and provided care. When he was able and willing to pick up a guitar, music became an integral part of his therapy.
Musician friends and collaborators such as Norah Jones, Teddy Thompson and Marshall Crenshaw threw benefit concerts. Eventually, Jason began to perform in New York again, which is when he began to demonstrate to doubters, himself among them, that the old Jason was there, despite a less expressive exterior. Only when he was able to make an emotional connection to the music he was playing did Jason feel his personality had truly reemerged. He completed an album he was halfway through when the tragedy struck. At the end of the film, he performs a song he wrote about his recovery and we are able to behold the artist.
His prognosis is not completely rosy. Talking at a school for kids who have suffered brain injuries, Jason admits to feeling depressed about the year-and-a-half that he lost of his life. It’s a total blank, but he knows it could have been much worse. Metzgar, whose previous two docs received awards, should consider making a follow-up movie down the road. Wherever Jason and his family are at that point, odds are it will provide another opportunity to shed tears of joy and sorrow.
Merigold Moving Pictures
Director/Screenwriter/Producer: Eric Daniel Metzgar
Running time: 79 min.
Release date: February 6 NY