Jazz, art, and the French Quarter — some of the elements that make New Orleans one of America’s most beloved and unique cites — work together to provide a rich backdrop for Dr. Nicholas Bazan to explore the human impact on Alzheimer’s disease.
“I wanted to give a message of hope about this disease. Awareness yes, but hope at the same time,” said Bazan, a member of New Orleans’ Legatus chapter who is a renowned Neuroscience and published author.
Bazan, professor and director of the Neuroscience Center of Excellence at Louisiana State University Health New Orleans School of Medicine, in 2012 published his first novel, “Una Vida: A Fable of Music,” which has since been adapted into a feature film, Of Mind and Music.
Bazan co-wrote the screenplay with Richie Adams, the film’s director. The independent film has drawn praise from moviegoers and critics at various festivals and screenings since the movie was produced in 2014. The film was in limited release nationwide this spring and is now available on DVD and Blu-ray.
“We knew that if the story was told against the backdrop of a city, rich and beautiful in history, and human beings helping human beings in times of need — regardless of race and socioeconomic status — that it would be a good thing for the film,” he said.
Bazan said his novel and the film are meant to spread awareness of Alzheimer’s disease to a wider audience than scientific journals can typically reach.
“To write the novel took me two years,” Bazan explained. “It took a lot of thinking to come up with the characters that could connect with people.”
One of the main characters in Of Mind and Music is Dr. Alvaro Cruz (played by Portuguese actor Joaquim De Almeida), who is a renowned neuroscientist studying Alzheimer’s disease. In the story, Cruz is heartbroken and disillusioned because his elderly mother has died of Alzheimer’s while he was away at a lecture in Paris.
Bazan said Cruz’s experience is based in part on his own life. Bazan’s mother died at age 86 while he was at a conference in Japan. She did not die from Alzheimer’s disease, but Bazan said he felt guilt not being at his mother’s side when she died.
In the story, Cruz takes time off work to gather himself and reconnect with the love of music that he and his mother shared. In New Orleans’ French Quarter, Cruz hears the spellbinding voice of an elderly female street musician named Una Vida, played by actress Aunjanue L. Ellis.
After repeat visits to hear her sing, Cruz realizes that Una Vida is suffering from Alzheimer’s disease, and he knows her street-musician companions are not equipped to meet her needs. As he goes about trying to help her, taking her into his own home and helping her search for a long-lost son, Cruz is amazed to learn that music triggers Una Vida’s memory. When a song comes on from her past, or when she sings a tune, Una Vida’s Alzheimer’s seemingly fades away — at least until the song ends.
Bazan said scientific research has shown that music, for many Alzheimer’s patients, stimulates their cognitive ability.
“Some patients are without connection to the world, but by being connected with music, they can be reconnected with reality,” Bazan said.
The magic of music
The reason why music stimulates a patient with Alzheimer’s disease is because music is stored in the brain’s cingulate gyrus, the least injured part of the brain in someone with Alzheimer’s, said Dr. Vincent Fortanasce, a renowned neurologist and bioethicist who is a member of Legatus’ San Juan Capistrano Chapter.
“Music is magical in saving and restoring memory,” said Fortanasce, who added that even patients with severe Alzheimer’s can remember and sing songs from their past because the neurons in the part of the brain that stores music are the last to be affected by the disease.
Actress Sharon Lawrence, who plays Cruz’s wife Angela in the film, said she had watched a documentary about music therapy for patients with Alzheimer’s shortly before she was offered the role.
“The idea of doing a narrative story about how music connects us back to ourselves, I was very open to the idea,” Lawrence said. “I thought, ‘What a great way to help continue the understanding of this.’”
Like many other members of the cast and crew, Lawrence has a personal connection to Alzheimer’s. Her grandmother died from the disease, as did the film’s lead actor Joaquim de Almeida’s mother. Adams, the director, said the film’s casting director was a caregiver for her father for 10 years until he died of the disease last year, and one of his wife’s grandparents has recently been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s.
“It’s a subject that I have had compassion for because I have seen not only the people who have the disease and their challenges, but also the families and caregivers who suffer,” said Lawrence, who for several years has been involved in fundraisers for Alzheimer’s research.
A message of hope
According to the Alzheimer’s Association, an estimated 5.4 million Americans are currently diagnosed with the disease, which is listed as the sixth-leading cause of death in the United States and the fifth-leading cause of death for people over age 65.
Bazan said there is no cure or any proven steps to prevent neurological diseases such as Alzheimer’s.
“With Alzheimer’s, there are a lot of black boxes in our understanding of what’s going on,” Bazan said. “That’s why we can’t be in denial and we need the resources to do the research.”
In the absence of a cure, Bazan said he wanted to give a message of hope to people who may be diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or have a loved one with the illness. Bazan said his Catholic faith informed him as he went about writing the novel and screenplay.
“I’m one of those people who don’t believe in luck and I don’t believe in serendipity,” Bazan said. “I’m one of those who believe that God gave us scientists the opportunity to do what we do. I try to follow God’s guidance in a way to bring hope to things and situations that we cannot yet sort out through scientific approaches.”
Though subtle, faith is a consistent theme throughout the film. In one scene, Cruz lights a candle in a church for his mother. In a climactic moment, a cross is seen on a wall, which leaves the viewer with the impression that a character relied on faith to cope through a dark time in life.
“I think God has kind of had his hand upon this project from the very beginning,” said Adams, a Baton Rouge-based director who attends a Methodist Church. “I think God has his hand on all our lives, which gives me a huge amount of comfort.”
BRIAN FRAGA is a Legatus magazine staff writer.
Learn more: OfMindAndMusic.com