Dir. Stephen Walker
(PG) ★ ★ ★ ★
“We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.”
That is a line from, of all things, this summer’s Indiana Jones sequel, which is undistinguished except for that line. It’s one of the most eloquent I’ve heard on the subject of aging. But Young @ Heart suggests an amendment to it: Life has begun to take things away from its subjects, a group of elderly singers in an unlikely rock chorus, but it hasn’t stopped giving.
Young @ Heart was promoted as a lighthearted entertainment. Emphasized in the ads were comical scenes founded on a simple premise: old people singing edgy songs by Sonic Youth and James Brown are funny. Are they funny? Yes, they are funny. But the film is also poignant and humane. The chorus members are an exuberant bunch, but with advanced age come illness and death, and the film contains those things as well. Most of us are young and stupid; when we are older and hopefully less stupid, we should count ourselves lucky to have weathered the changes as well as those in this film, in mind and in spirit.
Director Stephen Walker follows the Young @ Heart chorus as they prepare new songs for an upcoming performance titled “Alive and Kicking.” One is James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” on which the singers have trouble finding the words or the lyrics, or both. Another is “Yes I Can Can,” a soulful tongue-twister by Alan Touissant, but the chorus struggles with the song’s seventy-one utterances of “can.” The third is Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” and the group can’t make heads or tails of any of it. The director of the chorus is Bob Cilman, who is warm and affectionate, but a stern taskmaster when it is required. He does not condescend to them, and holds them to high standards.
Walker interviews the performers. They discuss their lives, their relationships to each other, and what the chorus means to them. In good or failing health, they make every effort to attend rehearsals and performances; it is a place of shared vitality, community, and new experience. Among my favorites is Eileen Hall, who was ninety-two years old at the time of the filming and sadly passed away in 2007. She has a moving scene where she explains her show-must-go-on determination following a tragedy.
Along the way, life intrudes. Illness impedes some. Members of the group pass away. The conversations turn from the chorus to matters of health. Cancer scares. Heart attacks. Mortality. There are events in the film that are heartbreaking. During a hospitalization, ailing chorus member Joe Benoit explains that he doesn’t fear for his health. “Have I convinced you?” he asks. “No,” Walker answers.
The film includes Young @ Heart music videos of songs including the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere.” What is striking during these performances and others is how the lyrics resonate in ways we haven’t heard before. We discover renewed vigor in the well worn “I Feel Good.” Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” becomes a tender elegy. And what Fred Knittle does with Coldplay’s lovely “Fix You” is no less than what Johnny Cash did with Nine Inch Nails’ “Hurt” in 2002; Coldplay front man Chris Martin has a pitch-perfect falsetto, but I think it’ll be some decades before he can sing it with the emotional ache in Knittle’s voice.
I sang along to the film. When it was over, I listened to and sang music with more relish. I am more hopeful about the future. Few movies that claim to be life-affirming know what that means. This one does.