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The Beat Goes On
The Young@Heart Chorus defies expectations
BY MOLLY TEMPLETON
YOUNG@HEART: Directed by Stephen Walker. Starring the Young@Heart Chorus. Fox Searchlight, 2008. PG. 107 minutes.
It would take a more curmudgeonly soul than mine to dislike the stars of the new documentary Young@Heart or to begrudge them their moment in the cinematic spotlight. The Young@Heart Chorus is made up of folks in their 70s and older who, under the guidance of their patient but firm director, Bob Cilman, learn and perform songs by the likes of the Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Coldplay and Prince. They stick their fingers in their ears or remove their hearing aids when Cilman plays Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” for them, but weeks later, they’ve (nearly) got it down. The song is an odd choice — neither the choir members nor most of their audiences will be familiar with it — but it works. In the voices of an elderly chorus, “My future is static / It’s already had it” takes on new meaning.
But while the Young@Heart Chorus is certainly a worthy subject, director Stephen Walker’s film fails to tell the choir’s story as well as it might. It’s clear that Walker means well; in the film’s production notes, he wisely explains his initial skepticism about the group and Cilman’s reluctance to have the choir be part of a documentary (a previous such experience had soured him on the notion). But the film doesn’t display enough of Walker’s thoughtfulness and interest in the chorus members as individuals. There’s a certain cheeky British sass to Walker’s too-frequent narration, but when, after a choir member works his way through his part, Walker bursts into laughter, asking if he thinks he was in tune, it’s hard not to cringe. Too often, the choir members are shot from the perspective of someone taller than they are, which emphasizes the uncomfortable feeling that we’re viewing the elderly singing rock songs — the assumed provenance of youth — as we would view children pretending to do adult things. But while children haven’t lived through what they’re playing at, the Young@Heart singers have lived through plenty. A child singing David Bowie’s “Golden Years” would be a gimmick; an octogenarian singing it is an experienced adult bringing resonance to the song.
It’s one of the film’s failings that it includes not only endless shots of the choir’s Northampton home and surroundings but several awkward, corny, too-literal music videos of the choir which take up time that could have been better spent exploring the characters and stories of the singers, who emerge mostly as personality types — the sassy one, the endearing one, the grumpy one. Occasionally, the film glimpses into the life of a singer beyond rehearsal, as with Fred Knittle, a former chorus member who retired for health reasons. When Fred, in his Johnny Cash-like baritone, works through Coldplay’s “Fix You,” his oxygen-supply apparatus ticking almost in time, the song becomes something else entirely, something goosebump-inducing and newly meaningful.
The choir’s story is in the learning process, the adapting of and to the music, the director’s patience, the singers’ willingness and enthusiasm for something new, but for the audience, the story is in the performance, in the experience of seeing the choir onstage. Where some more complicated topics lie is between those two stories, between the public and private reasons people love to see the choir perform: Is it because we want to believe we’ll never get too old to rock? Because we want to break down tired notions about what old people do with themselves? Or because the juxtaposition of old age and youthful songs creates a safe place from which to observe the realities of aging without having to think too hard about what it will be like to be old, with all the assumptions people make about what that means? Maybe I’m thinking about this too much; maybe we ought to all just see Young@Heart as a sweet reminder that we don’t have to take aging lying down. But I can’t help but feel that though it comes up hard against the issue of mortality in the choir’s world, Young@Heart too often stays too close to the surface.
Young@Heart opens Friday, May 16, at the Bijou.