Young @ Heart

Reviewed By Peter Sobczynski
Posted 04/18/08 00:00:00

"Insert "Steel Wheelchairs" Reference Here"
4 stars (Worth A Look)

Young@Heart is a documentary that follows the members of the Young@Heart chorus, a group of senior citizens based in Northhampton, MA who, under the leadership of director Bob Cilman, have developed a loyal following at home and abroad thanks to a repertoire consisting entirely of rock songs, including selections from the songbooks of artists ranging from Bob Dylan (“Forever Young”) to the Clash (“Should I Stay or Should I Go?”). My guess is that for most of you, this sounds less like an appealing idea for a film and more like one of those “gosh, aren’t old people nifty and wacky?” stories that usually gets tacked on to the end of your local news on exceptionally slow days that has been stretched out to a feature-length running time. I’ll admit it--that was pretty much the impression that I had when I entered the screening room and not even the rousing reception that it was said to have received at the Sundance Film Festival earlier this year did much to dissuade me from the thought that I was probably going to be sitting through something that was earnest, well-meaning and duller than watching boring paint dry. However, the film is anything but that--instead, it is a low-key charmer with the power to win over all but the most committed cynics and even they may find themselves tapping their feet every now and then without even realizing it.

The film follows the group through the ups and downs of rehearsing the new show that they will be putting on for a special concert in America before embarking on another tour of Europe, where they have developed a large following. Some of the struggles come from the songs that their leader has chosen for them to take a crack at this time around, including Alan Toussaint’s fiendishly difficult “Yes, We Can Can” (in which the word “can” is uttered upwards of 90 times), James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” (you can imagine the initial reactions to hearing that classic slab of grunge). Some of them come from the inescapable fact that time, the Rolling Stones to the contrary, is not on their side--one of Cilman’s plans is to bring back a couple of former group members to do a duet of Cold play’s “Fix You” and as the film unfolds, there is a real question as to whether either of them will be alive when the concert rolls around, let alone ready to perform. Along the way, there are moments of triumph (such as a warm-up concert at a local prison) , moments of tragedy (a couple of members do pass away during the rehearsal period) and moments of pure nutty bliss, such as the joyous music video they put together for their rendition of “I Wanna Be Sedated.”

“Young@Heart” contains many moments of humor and just as many moments of heartbreak and one of the things about the film that is so impressive is that it actually earns those moments. For the most part, there are no scenes in which we are supposed to look at the characters and think, “Aw, aren’t they cute?” just because they are old and doing the kind of music ordinarily performed by young people. Instead, director Stephen Walker keeps the cutesiness to a minimum and shows his subjects as real people who have lived full lives and who refuse to let their advanced ages get in the way of their ability to continue doing so. As for the music, it is actually pretty good and not just as some kind of novelty. They are obviously having fun with performing, whether on stage or in rehearsal, and that sense of joy really does come through--when they finally make it through “Yes, We Can Can,” you will be as elated as they are. More importantly, their advanced age brings an extra edge to the songs that didn’t exist in the original recordings--when 92-year-old Eileen Hall transforming the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” into the kind of dramatic soliloquy that you might see on the stage at the Old Vic, it transforms the entire song into a meditation of life and death and when “Fix You” is finally performed, the soft sound of singer Fred Knittle’s oxygen machine providing an inadvertent accompaniment makes the number almost unbearably poignant. If “Shine a Light” is a concert film in which the Rolling Stones respond to their advancing ages by simply and triumphantly denying the fact that they are getting on in years (grinding up against Christina Aguilera does have that effect), then Young@Heart serves as an interesting counterpoint in the way that its performers make an impression by embracing their age wholehearted

“Young@Heart” is not perfect by any means--at 107 minutes, it runs a little long and I could have lived with a lot less of Walker’s narration--and it most certainly does not reinvent the wheel that is the contemporary documentary. However, that is not the film’s purpose at all. It just wants to show us a glimpse at a bunch of people who have spent their lifetimes really living and who have now been given a chance to share their experiences with the world though song. Unless you are a completely committed cynic, I cannot imagine anyone walking out of this film without having a smile on their face, a tear in their eye and a song in their heart and I am willing to bet that even some of those cynics may find themselves tapping their feet as well.

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