I don’t think I will sing
Any more just now;
or ever. I must start
to sit with a blind brow
above an empty heart.
John Berryman, “He Resigns”
Don’t let us get sick,
Don’t let us get old,
Don’t let us get stupid, all right?
Just make us be brave
And make us play nice
And let us be together tonight.
Warren Zevon, “Don’t Let Us Get Sick”
Rock is the music of youth, of energy, of power, of sex and the life force. One doesn’t think of it as old people’s music. At least not until seeing British director Stephen Walker’s surprisingly affecting, frequently hilarious documentary about a chorus of Northampton, Massachusetts, seniors that has traveled the world singing songs by David Bowie, The Clash and Talking Heads, among others, for the past 25 years.
At first glance, it’s clear that Young@Heart has the potential to border on gimmickry. I can’t imagine the idea of senior citizens belting out rock classics hasn’t been pitched as a spin-off of “American Idol.” But just minutes into the movie, it becomes apparent that the filmmaker has tapped into something quite touching and possibly profound: The group’s 24 members — average age 80 — aren’t struggling through rehearsals and ultimately performing on stage for the chance to be part of a novelty act. In the most poignant sense possible, they are drawing life from this music.
The chorus is the brainchild of its 53-year-old director, Bob Cilman. Walker’s film chronicles a seven-week period in the spring of 2006 during which Cilman prepares his ensemble for a performance in their hometown. We watch them gather several days each week to go through new material the musical director hopes to add to their repertoire. What we see as these scenes open would not be out of place in the rec room of any rest home in America: a piano, folding chairs, and stooped men and women bearing thick glasses, canes and the odd portable oxygen machine.
But then Cilman’s backup band kicks into gear on something like “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” “I Wanna Be Sedated” or “Road to Nowhere,” and a light flicks on inside his singers. Which is not to say that all of them are transformed into transcendent vocalists. A 92-year-old ex-stripper talk-sings her way through solos. An octogenarian with a painful spinal condition blows his two-line part in James Brown’s “I Feel Good” over and over, till you find yourself think-singing, “I knew that he would.” Lyrics in general are a challenge for the group to remember, and when it comes to staying in tune — well, let’s just say there’s an element of noise. It is, however, a joyful noise.
Rehearsal sequences are interspersed with interview footage and visits to the homes of several chorus members. A number of hospital rooms are visited, too, as more than one individual we’ve come to know and appreciate suffers a sudden reversal of health while preparing for the concert. Their battles, their defeats and the heartache that ripples through the remaining singers — for whom the show must somehow still go on — offer unusually brutal insight into the experience of aging. “This is the road we travel, unfortunately,” remarks one of the troupe, before returning to practice and singing each new number as though his life depended on it.
There is much to take away from Young@Heart . The good spirits of the group are contagious. The movie is punctuated with zany music videos (“Golden Years,” “Stayin’ Alive”) produced by independent cinematographer Eddie Marritz, and the fun the singers had in making them is palpable. We gain insight into the sense of purpose these people draw from performing together: Many no longer have any other kind of family in their lives.
We glimpse great courage casually disguised. One member apologizes for missing a rehearsal, not bothering to mention he was rushed to the hospital and nearly died the day before. Another, who has congestive heart disease, delivers a rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” that’s every bit as heart-wrenching as Johnny Cash’s latter-day interpretation of Trent Reznor’s “Hurt.” Perhaps the picture’s most powerful moment comes when the ensemble performs for inmates of the Hampshire Jail. The sight of the 70-, 80- and 90-year-olds singing Dylan’s “Forever Young,” essentially pleading with these men not to squander their limited supply of earthly time, brings a tear to more than one convict’s eye and is likely to have a similar effect on the audience.
Don’t be put off by the movie’s geezers-singing-Weezer premise. In reality, Young@Heart isn’t about the youth of the tunes or the age of the chorus members. It’s about the timeless, transformative power of music, and, like Cilman’s song list, its praises are well worth singing.