(2007) Documentary (Fox Searchlight) Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Fred Knittle, Jeanne Hatch, Louise Canady, Jean Florio, Steve Martin, Eileen Hall, Donald Jones, Stan Goldman, Elaine Fligman, Brock Lynch, Ed Rehor, Bob Salvini, Norma Landry, Bob Cilman, Stephen Walker. Directed by Stephen Walker and Ruth George
Every day we grow older. Days pile upon days and become weeks, months, years. We grow older. We lose that youthful glow, the spring in our step becomes creaky and our hair turns silver, white or disappears entirely. Our skin becomes blotchy. Our aches and pains become the central reality of our lives. We watch those we grew up with one by one pass away. Our children have children; our grandchildren have children.
It is reality that we move toward old age throughout life, some more gracefully than others. Those that arrive there have a dilemma; to stay active, to keep their minds and bodies occupied, or to sit down, eat their pudding and wait for the night they go to sleep and don’t wake up the next morning.
There is a chorus based in Northampton, Massachusetts at the Walter Salvo Rest House, a housing project for the elderly. Members must be at least 70 years of age and the average age is above 80. You would think a chorus of this age would choose musical selections that fit their age group.
But that would not be the case here. Under the direction of Bob Cilman, this amazing group of people are performing contemporary songs by artists as diverse as David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, James Brown, Coldplay and the Talking Heads. The attitude of the chorus is a collective Why not? and they bring such joy and spirit to this music it reminds me of the adage that you’re only as old as you choose to be.
It isn’t always easy; some of the song choices prove to be a little tricky, like “Yes You Can-Can” which at one time has the word “can” sung 71 in a short span. It’s not easy for anyone to get the staccato rhythmic repetitions and at times it’s clear that Cilman gets exasperated as do the singing seniors. Still they soldier on and some of these songs take on an especially poignant meaning.
We get glimpses of their daily lives; some alone and ignored whose lives seem to begin and end with the chorus, which shares it’s name with the movie – Young @ Heart. Others seem more sociable, like Joe Benoit who hangs out with other members of the chorus and never met a pun he didn’t like. Eileen Hall, the eldest of the bunch singing into her 90s, has a brassy demeanor.
But this isn’t all about plucky seniors singing songs that were written when they were well into their 70s; two members of the chorus pass away during the course of the movie, including one just a week before the big concert at a theater in Northampton that the group has been preparing for throughout the movie. For the first, they sing “Forever Young” at a prison concert which is a bit of a rehearsal shortly before the big show.
The second member was to have performed a duet with retired member and close friend Fred Knittle who was on oxygen and was no longer able to tour with the chorus. Knittle comes out on stage and sits down. Once the applause dies down, he starts singing the song he was to have performed with his friend – Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Knittle’s baritone is a little rough but it is a beautiful, soaring voice nonetheless. The emotion behind the song and the release it provokes not only in the audience at the concert but in the viewer of the movie takes one’s breath away. This one moment, not quite four minutes long, made this the best film of 2008 for me (although it premiere on the film festival circuit in 2007, the movie didn’t get a release in the United States until the following year).
The movie was originally a documentary on the BBC and in the manner of Beeb documentaries the narration from filmmaker Stephen Walker could be overbearing, smug and intrusive. He also interrupts the movie to play some mock videos of songs that the chorus was singing including “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads.
What the movie really does well is change your outlook on aging. It’s not a pleasant reality that we’re all going to get old assuming we survive long enough to get there. However, it doesn’t have to be an awful thing. We don’t stop living when we start dying. Sometimes that’s just when we start living. This is definitely a film that I can recommend without hesitation to anyone and everyone.
WHY RENT THIS: Amazingly powerful and thoroughly charming. A film that might just change your outlook on aging.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Were the videos really necessary? Walker’s voiceovers could have been less intrusive.
FAMILY VALUES: There are a few bad words here and there and some of the thematic elements might be a bit too heavy for younger viewers.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The mock-video for David Bowie’s “Golden Years” was filmed at Six Flags New England and at the Holyoke Merry-Go-Round.
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: There’s a five minute clip of the chorus performing in Los Angeles.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $7.1M on an unknown production budget; I would guess the movie was a resounding box office success.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cocoon
FINAL RATING: 10/10