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Wednesday March 26, 2008 5:06 pm

Review: Young@Heart

Young@Heart posterSince 1982, the Young@Heart chorus, with members averaging an age of eighty, has wowed audiences with unique and entertaining interpretations of classic punk and rock songs.

Director Stephen Walker follows the geriatric troupe as they prepare for one of their biggest and most challenging undertakings: the Alive and Well tour. The film delves into the personal lives of key chorus members, spotlights group leader Bob Cilman, and attempts to explain the appeal of watching elderly people singing your favorite songs. The appeal doesn’t need much explaining, however—Young@Heart touts some of the most fascinating people you’re likely to find, and, if you have any doubts as to whether you’ll enjoy the film (like I did), by the end you’ll be wondering why you’ve never heard of these idiosyncratic octogenarians.

Read the full review after the jump.

Young@Heart opens as band leader Bob Cilman is attempting to teach the group some new and challenging songs for an upcoming tour. The members have seven weeks to learn and perfect the tunes, which include Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia, Coldplay’s Fix You, James Brown’s I Feel Good, and Road to Nowhere by Talking Heads. As we come to learn, the process is not easy, and many of the songs this time around will be the most challenging the group has faced yet.

The first rehearsal reveals the utter contempt the members feel for much of the music they’re charged with singing; many roll their eyes or plug their ears. What at first seems like a bunch of geriatrics who have somehow transcended their own old-fashioned tendencies and embraced contemporary music, is quickly shown to be something much more banal: a gig. These people like classical music and opera and have no real interest in new-fangled rock ‘n’ roll. This is merely a job or hobby to them.

I suppose therein lies the essence of Young@Heart, what makes them more than musical ephemera or novelty: a deep connection with music that tends to bore them. Singing in the chorus is, for them, much like the ultimate walk in the park or daily set of chair squats: it keeps them feeling young, but it also allows them to retain a sense of purpose. It doesn’t hurt, of course, that much of the music is a wink to the trials of old age—Fix You ends up a chilling eulogy to a fallen group member, I Feel Good is an uplifting attempt to say “we may be old, but we’re still kickin’!” Cilman seems to have a knack for picking relevant music that the audience will appreciate, even if it isn’t clear that the singers always understand the deeper meaning.

Throughout the course of the film, Young@Heart experience myriad health scares and some tragic losses. But despite these obstacles, each member strives to attend each rehearsal and concert, even if it means his or her well-being is put at risk. The commitment to the band is not born of need for fame or fortune, but desire to feel connected to a world outside their community and to do something new and exciting in the latter days of life.

The film does tend to spend too much time explaining things that don’t need much explanation—I find old-fashioned words on the screen to be a perfect segway, but director Stephen Walker finds the need to constantly interject with his misplaced English narration. This is merely a distraction from content easily self-explained, likely left over from the eponymous mini-series that aired last year in the UK. Otherwise, the pace and tone suit a documentary film just fine, right down to the intimate interviews and raw camera work.

I certainly don’t pretend to know what old age is like, but Young@Heart showed me where I’d like to be when I reach it. The chorus is a testament to what anyone can do when they put their mind to it. Despite age and—in some cases—disability, Young@Heart found a unique passion for music and performance, but most of all, for life. I laughed at their times of confusion and quaint ineptitude, marveled at their surprisingly quick wit, sobbed like a baby at their tragedy, and was struck with chills as they took the stage and poured their eighty-year-old hearts into song.

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