Young @ Heart
As someone who has the song “London Calling” currently set as her cell phone ringtone, it only took a few bars of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to get my head and feet moving right from the start of the infectious documentary Young at Heart. Recalling that the last time I’d rocked out in a theatre was in the far less crowded press screening of Sweeney Todd where I doubt that any of the critics could have picked me out of a lineup, I self-consciously looked around the jam-packed theatre this time and saw that I wasn’t the only one going into concert mode—others were getting into the film, including a man in a wheelchair whose head was banging even harder than mine and an elderly woman who was moving her arms and dancing in her seat. While it can be argued that this is the most expected reaction to British punk of the 70’s and 80’s, it’s a far more surprising reaction when the entertainers performing it in the documentary are chorus members in their 70’s, 80’s and even 90’s. As a widow enunciates, “Darling, you’ve got to let me know,” we sense that she means it and thus begins former BBC documentarian Stephen Walker’s crowd pleasing film which earned him the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the Los Angeles Film Festival.
Little Miss Sunshine, Sideways and Juno film studio Fox Searchlight Pictures definitely has another smash on their hands and I sense that this will be another one of those people mover word-of-mouth documentary hits like March of the Penguins, Super Size Me, or Mad Hot Ballroom that get people not only recommending the film to their friends but coming back to experience it again. Funny, sharp and at times heartbreaking, narrator and director Stephen Walker introduces us to the Young at Heart chorus which started in 1982 as an act that performed vaudeville songs until someone performed Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy” and the rest was history. From The Clash (which one band member called Crash) to Radiohead, the Sex Pistols, and others, the Northampton, Massachusetts group led by their patient yet strict and supportive music director Bob Cilman has traveled across Europe to play for the King and Queen of Norway and performs regular sold out shows in their hometown as well as wherever they have a prospective audience such as the local prison. Though the health problems of the performers abound with some having survived numerous heart attacks, cancers, spinal conditions and other major setbacks along with the constant reality that losing members due to serious hospitalization and even death is a recurring struggle, the chorus carries on as Walker documents their two month preparation for a new concert. Although Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” which prompted some Young at Heart members to shove earplugs and tissues into their ears seems like it will be the toughest one to master for the members, who mostly prefer classical, showtunes and opera, Cilman gives them their trickiest challenge yet with the rousing toe-tapping, hand-clapping Allen Toussaint number “Yes We Can Can” which uses the word “can” 71 daunting times.
Documenting his “twenty-four new grandparents” every step of the way from their home lives to car rides with questionable driving to the rehearsal hall where some fall asleep during the now required three practices per week, Walker’s compelling film is quietly moving and when we lose two members late into the picture unspeakably sad, yet it’s a touching affirmation of life and dedication or as one member says determination to keep their mind active since they’ll lose it if they don’t use it. While their versions probably aren’t what James Brown or the Talking Heads had in mind when they first set pen to paper or pick to guitar, the clever interpretation by Cilman and his singers bring unexpected humor, warmth and new meaning to some of the compositions such as The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” David Bowie’s “Golden Years” or at their most heart-wrenching Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
It’s the beauty of the numbers and the clarity and quality of the voices that make audience members forgive some of the film’s shortcomings such as perhaps invading the privacy of one gravely ill member in particular a bit too much or not offering much in the way of background on the chorus, how the members are chosen, or much in the way of logistics instead preferring a natural, organic approach. Overall, it’s a remarkable achievement for the filmmaker of course, but more than that for Bob Cilman and the Young at Heart chorus.
Note: This review is dedicated in loving memory of my recently deceased Professor C.B. who was the first professor I ever had both when I took a kid’s college course at eleven and also when I officially enrolled five years later. C.B. managed to inspire everyone whose life he touched with his humor, passion, and humanitarian service. It was C.B.’s encouragement and support that inspired me to take my writing more seriously and I can still hear his Bostonian accent calling me “Jennifaux” and telling me to always keep writing and to never listen to anyone who tells me my sentences are too long. Thank you, C.B.