Movie Review: ‘Young@Heart’

May 28, 2008 · Print This Article

By Jennifer B. Kaufman

Get a bunch of irascible and lovable old people and have them sing the songs of the Ramones, the Clash and Bruce Springsteen. It almost sounds like an “After School Special” for the AARP set, filled with lots of schmaltzy life lessons. Instead, Young@Heart is an original and affectionate look at our often-ignored elderly and how they bring a whole new meaning to the words “rocking chair.

British documentarian Stephen Walker focuses his lens on the Young@Heart Chorus based in Northampton, Massachusetts. Started in 1982 by choir director Bob Cilman, the Young@Heart Chorus is preparing for a 2006-2007 tour. Already used to performing and the rigors of the road, the chorus is gearing up for learning new songs as the film begins.

More inclined to listen to classical, opera or the standards, the chorus members express shock and bewilderment when they find out what they are going to sing. They even cover their ears and shake their heads when they listen to the original songs. It’s as if they are saying, “We have to sing that?” However, the members aren’t going to shy away from a song just because it’s not pleasing to their ears, and they soon begin to study the lyrics (often using a magnifying glass) to songs like Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” and “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads.

As with any other rehearsals, the chorus is having their share of problems. Dora Morrow and Stan Goldman keep stumbling on their duet on James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” They can’t quite get the lyrics and rhythm right. The chorus is also overwhelmed by Allen Poussaint’s “Yes, We Can,” which features the word “can” a staggering 71 times.

Despite their difficulties, the chorus members are determined to master the songs. But like any artists, they also get up to quite a bit of mischief, sharing silly jokes and teasing each other like high school students. Cilman is a strict taskmaster, but shows a great deal of love for the chorus. This is not just some enjoyable arts and crafts time for the Young@Heart Chorus to spend their golden years. Cilman actually treats them as if they are doing something important and expects them to give 110%.

Though everyone is an important part of the Young@Heart Chorus, filmmaker Walker focuses on a few select members. British-born Eileen Hall is a former burlesque performer and is totally fun and flirtatious. The aforementioned Dora Morrow says that singing “Yes, I Can” is hard, yet has no problem reciting the lyrics (and eventually blows “I Feel Good” out of the park). Fred Knittle’s voice is both rich and beautiful, and all the more remarkable considering he is suffering from congestive heart failure.

Sadly, not all members survived the filming. John Benoit and Bob Salvini die within a week of each other. The chorus learns of Salvini death just as they are about to perform at a local prison. Despite their grief, the show must go on. And when they sing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” even the hardened prisoners are moved to tears.

Interspersed throughout the movie are fun videos of the chorus singing songs like Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” and David Bowie’s “Golden Years.” Though the videos sometimes jar you out of the documentary’s storyline, you can’t help but feel the chorus’ enthusiasm for being rock video stars.

The film culminates with the Young@Heart Chorus performing at a sold-out show in a huge theater. The audience is filled with both young and old and the high-energy spirit can rival any rock concert. One of the most touching moments is when Knittle sings Coldplay’s “Fix You” accompanied by his oxygen pump. Knittle was supposed to sing this song with the recently deceased Salvini. He sings “when you lose something you can’t replace…I will try to fix you.” The lyrics take on a heartbreakingly new meaning, knowing Knittle is not with his singing partner.

In fact, all the songs take on new meanings and become more potent when sung by people old enough to be the songwriters’ grandparents. On a show like American Idol, contestants are admonished to make a song their own. In Young@Heart, the performers actually do.

Young@Heart is rated PG.


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