Young at Heart
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Few can belt out the Bee Gee's "Stayin' Alive" with more immediacy than a choir whose average age is 81. And, as the LA Times says, "It's safe to say that the Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Sedated' has never had a more heartfelt rendition."
The film Young@Heart is like nothing you have ever seen before. It is a documentary about a chorus of elders based in Northampton, Massachusetts, that performs music ranging from James Brown to Sonic Youth. Founded in 1982 by Bob Cilman -- chorus leader and Executive Director of the Northampton Arts Council, they perform musical theater both here and abroad.
Stephen Walker, a British documentary film maker ( Days that Shook the World ) who saw their musical theater show in England gained a commission from the UK's innovative Channel 4 to follow them through a seven-week period of rehearsing new material in preparation for a big performance.
We watch as Bob Cilman, their tough-love leader, takes them by degrees from introducing the new material to cheerleading their performance. Learning the lyrics is often a bit of a challenge ("Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can't we? If we wanna, yes we can can."), but so is getting out bed for rehearsal when you've got multiple health problems.
The documentary traces their progress as artists and as individuals, slipping into their homes to meet their spouses and to unearth stories of their lives. Not a few of the elders themselves prefer opera and classical music, but they trust Cilman to identify the material that best suits their act.
While most of their material is from recent decades -- not show tunes or big band classics -- these performers matured musically in the WWII days when the lyric was the motor of the tune. So when they perform Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia," for example, we pick up every word, making their cover of the song more nuanced than the original.
Eileen Hall's rap-like interpretation of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" is a strong reminder of the enduring sexuality and longing that is part of the human condition, no matter what the age.
Young@Heart has had its share of suitors. Walker was not the only director who wanted to film a documentary about them -- but he was the only one who had already lined up funding. And when the documentary won the Audience Award for Best International Film at the 2007 LA Film Festival, "There was a bit of a bidding war in LA about who was going to be able to distribute it in the States and Fox won out," Cilman recounts. Fox?!
"Fox Searchlight," Cilman corrects me. "They're the people who brought you Juno and Little Miss Sunshine and Napoleon Dynamite. They've brought a lot of films to us about parts of America that we usually don't get to see."
And that is just one of the reasons why this film is a remarkable product: we rarely see images of really old people not only having a fantastic time, but finishing a steep learning curve in time to boogie onstage to standing ovations.
In the run-up to the big performance, Young@Heart is booked to do a show at a nearby prison. Just as they get in their tour bus, they find out that one of their beloved members has died. But since the show must go on, they keep it together for a group of guys who greet them at first with a condescending wink and nod. We watch as this crowd is converted. There are tears. There's elation. And in the end, one of the prisoners grabs one of the performers and says into the camera with a fearsome sincerity, "This is the best concert I've ever seen." Many movie-goers agree.
I viewed the film in the company of about a dozen of my senior fitness students -- all in the same age range as the performers. While I was repeatedly brought to tears during the film, my companions were a bit more controlled. Doreen, 83, felt the scene showing the young prisoners' reactions was "a really authentic moment." Livia, 80, "loved it because it was terribly encouraging." Celia, 75, echoed my own reaction when she called it bittersweet.
Death is an ever-present actor in this cast, but it does not hold a leading role. Flirtation, rock and roll, devotion to art and musical friendships are front and center. Suspicions that this is somehow a gimmick, something cute and sweet, and that old people are unlikely to be sexy, sassy entertainers has meant that, despite uniformly laudatory reviews, attendance hasn't been as strong as Fox hoped.
This is a unique community arts activity that profits from the passion of its participants as they produce kick-ass entertainment. The members are so talented, professional and optimistic that one is forced to wonder: where are the showcases for elders in other communities?
Old age beckons all of us -- and the lucky ones will reach it. Will we have such vehicles to express ourselves? Young@Heart survives through local, state and national arts funding -- as well as the fees from its European tours. With the price of this administration's wars, the size of the national debt and the impoverishment of America, will there still, when we get old, be opportunities for elders to rock and roll?
Fred, 81, and suffering from congestive heart failure, returns to the choir after resigning for health reasons. Once he is helped to his chair on stage to perform Coldplay's "Fix It," the concert-goers and the movie audience alike are mesmerized and moved by the power and perfection of his voice. As Fred says -- tubes up his nose and oxygen supply in hand, "You don't get out of this world alive."
Sue Katz has published journalism on the three continents where she has lived; her topics range from Middle East peace movements to the impact of ageing on sexuality. Visit her blog at www.suekatz.com