Film-Forward Review: YOUNG@HEART


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The Young@Heart chorus
Photo: Fox Searchlight

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Directed by Stephen Walker
Produced by Sally George
Director of Photography Eddie Marritz
Edited by Chris King
Released by: Fox Searchlight Pictures
UK. 108 min. Rated PG

Many 1970’s rockers have revived their chart careers by covering traditional pop standards. Reversing the band wagon, Young@Heart documents people in their seventies – and way up – who have revived their lives by covering rock ‘n’ roll songs. When the film opens with a nonagenarian declaiming the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” to a roaring standing ovation, the musical question becomes as defiantly existential as it is amusing.

The Young@Heart chorus was founded at a Northampton, Massachusetts senior citizens’ housing project in 1982 under the direction of caring but stern taskmaster Bob Cilman. Documentary director Stephen Walker first heard the group perform in his native London on one of their European tours and filmed them over a couple of months as they prepared seven new songs for a hometown concert.

The members wince at first hearing the loud originals on those new-fangled CDs, and need very large type to learn the lyrics, yet they trust Cilman despite their wariness. The lyrics to such songs as David Bowie’s ironic “Golden Years” and the Talking Heads’ apocalyptic “Life During Wartime” have a heightened meaning when expressed by older folks. Even some songs that seem selected for the comic incongruity of being sung by seniors, such as “Schizophrenia” by alternative rockers Sonic Youth or James Brown’s funky “I Feel Good” (“That song has some real juice to it” says the zestful codger Stan Goldman), take on a resonance as the singers parse the words over, and over, and over, or when one goes blank on Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze.” Even Cilman despairs that they’ll ever succeed with some songs.

The film is full of the bemused equanimity of folks who’ve seen it all. The lighthearted highlights are four choreographed music videos, the group’s first, directed by Walker’s wife, producer Sally George. They include the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated,” performed in wheelchairs, and the Bee Gees’ disco anthem “Staying Alive.” A particularly poignant moment is how their rendition of Dylan’s “Forever Young” becomes a forgiving benediction to youthful inmates at a barbwire-surrounded prison.

But you first have to get past the director’s narration. Walker begins the film like a smarmy TV magazine feature, talking to the participants loudly and condescendingly in an annoyingly cheerful voice. At first, he defines them by their age, many health problems, and World War II service. Though they live in comfortable retirement in a New England college town, on screen we only occasionally get hints about their earlier working lives (while a few dabbled as professional singers, the group includes everyone from a doctor to maintenance workers; the 92-year-old Eileen Hall with the plummy British accent was a war bride). Walker banters that these educated men and women prefer Shakespeare, classical music, and Broadway shows to rock music. But 78-year-old Stan describes himself, and the others, as a culture vulture willing to “expand my horizons,” and Eileen zestfully prescribes the chorus as a way “to keep your brain going.”

The tone and emotions of the film change as the focus shifts to the efforts of three men with serious health problems to return to performing, even for just one last show. The singers over the years have had to get use to such comings and goings, and are clear-eyed about how they want to go on with the show. Chris Martin himself may have never sung Coldplay’s elegiac “Fix You” with the same meaningful brio as 81-year-old Fred Knittle, set to the rhythms of his attached oxygen tank in a solo that was originally meant to be a duet. Walker makes much of the group’s difficulty getting through Allen Toussaint’s rollicking anthem “Yes We Can Can” with its 72 incantations of the title. But their triumph could inspire recognition of what each of us can can do as we age. Nora Lee Mandel
April 9, 2008



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