Heart and soul 

Senior choir rocks the heartstrings

We talk about people in the entertainment business—movie producers, record executives, video game manufacturers—struggling to stay in touch with the “youth market,” but who bothers trying to stay in touch with old people? Nobody. In the movies particularly, old people are often at the mercy of young people, like idiot screenwriters who think it’s the acme of comedy to set an old woman up to be demure and dignified, then have her let fly with a string of cuss words or racial epithets. Or to make sport of their health problems and diminished sex lives. When elderly characters do enjoy vigorous sex lives, it’s usually just to shock their adult children. Even movies that restore a measure of youthful vigor and spontaneity to old people—I’m thinking of Grumpy Old Men—usually feature idealized old people as imagined by young people.

I expected more of the same going into Young @ Heart, a documentary about a choral group of senior citizens who get together singing young people’s music. The whole thing, frankly, sounded more like youth celebrating itself, recognizing and admiring itself in the adorableness of great-grandparents singing “our” music, like the Ramones and Sonic Youth. Is some Neanderthal archetype subtly reasserting itself here? Some vestigial survival instinct or atavistic social contract? Are we subtly telling our seniors they’d better flatter us good if they don’t want to end up on an ice floe?

Sappy, patronizing, overly deferential: there are a hundred ways Young @ Heart could have been unbearable, but it isn’t any of them. No kid gloves, here, just a lot of infectious enthusiasm as director Stephen Walker follows the Young at Heart choir through seven weeks of rehearsing a new set list in preparation for a hometown Northampton, Mass., show and subsequent European tour. We learn that the choir has been together since 1982 under the direction of the same man, Bob Cilman, a stern taskmaster some 25 years younger than the average Young at Heart member. In the beginning, the group’s oeuvre was mostly vaudeville, but more recently Cilman has been leading his charges farther and farther out of their collective pre-rock musical comfort zone with every new show. Among the seven numbers he’s hoping to work up for the European tour are Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” Talking Heads’ “Life During Wartime” and Allen Toussaint’s rousing R&B cooker “Yes We Can Can.” Already in the bag are the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the Zombies’ “She’s Not There” and “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” by the Clash.

Cilman delights in the challenge, and perhaps also in the validation he feels when “his” music finds acceptance among the seniors, at least a few of whom have never touched a compact disc. Most of the choir members prefer classical music, or in any event their familiarity with popular music reaches back to an era before funk and backbeat, to say nothing of Sonic Youth-style dissonance, which poses some delightful phrasing obstacles and elicits a general confusion about the lyrics. Playback of the original “Schizophrenia” invites plenty of plugged ears and scrunched-up faces—all part of Cilman’s process. Once they’ve registered their displeasure, everyone rises to the occasion.

The gaps in taste and musical lexicon between musical director and choir members, however, represent relatively minor challenges. With 20-odd members in their 70s, 80s and early 90s, health issues are also at the fore. One member brought out of retirement to lend his rumbling baritone to a duet on Coldplay’s “Fix You” carries an oxygen tank for his congestive heart failure, and the quickest study in the group has been through six bouts of chemotherapy in less than two years. Many members interviewed credit the group with their prolonged lives and good health, but as the big show approaches and rehearsals go from one to three per week, the regimen starts to take its toll.

Sprinkled among Young @ Heart’s rehearsal footage and interviews are a handful of amateurish music videos. “I Wanna Be Sedated” has the oldsters gamely lip-synching from wheelchairs and hospital gurneys, while another presents the ailing baritone as a Puff Daddy figure, surrounded by lithe young dancing girls. They make for amusing interludes, but the real highlights of the documentary are the without-a-net live performances, which include a warm-up show in the courtyard of a men’s minimum-security prison. When the choir does “Forever Young,” there’s barely a dry eye in the yard. Probing from a distance with his camera, director Walker—who also narrates with voluble enthusiasm—captures one flinty con face after another softening to Young at Heart’s unadorned interpretation of Dylan’s lyrics. It’s a magical moment, almost more so than the emotional performance at a packed Academy Theater, which also elicits its share of sniffles and glistening eyes.

It will be interesting to compare Young @ Heart with Martin Scorsese’s Rolling Stones performance doc Shine a Light when the latter comes out on DVD. Apples and oranges, sure, but I doubt if Scorsese’s battery of cameras can come close to capturing the life-preserving power of music revealed by Young @ Heart and its one crummy video camera. Mick Jagger, whose stage gymnastics have kept him lithe and agile well into his 60s, may live to perform, but the oldsters of Young @ Heart literally perform to live. Genuinely stirring stuff.
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