It’s not often that I find a film worth recommending to everyone I know. But once in a while I come across something that’s truly special – redemptive and beautiful and life affirming – and I might as well stand on a busy street corner shouting to passersby that they need to see this film. That they must move this film to position #1 in their Netflix queue and harass the mail carrier every day until he finally brings it.
When I watched Young@Heart, I knew this was one of those rare films.
The movie begins with a wildly excited crowd on their feet cheering for the Young@Heart chorus, a crew whose average age is 80. The gray-haired soloist, with her creaky voice and British accent, begins The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and quickly the entire chorus is singing joyfully, exuberantly, and with gusto you wouldn’t expect from a group of senior citizens.
Hailing from Northampton, Massachusetts, Young@Heart is a group of two dozen or so seniors who sing rock, punk, and blues in a community chorus under the direction of Bob Cilman. Their repertoire includes songs by Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, Prince, and James Brown – songs contemporary enough that those under the age of 50 or so would easily recognize them.
The singers admit that they prefer classical music or opera and they even plug their ears when hearing Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” for the first time, but that’s part of the appeal. No one would expect a group of old folks to get together to sing any of these tunes. No one would expect them to be so full of life.
Young@Heart, now celebrating its 27th year, tours the U.S. and Europe singing music “your mother wouldn’t like.” When British documentarian Stephen Walker heard the group take on David Byrne’s ”Road to Nowhere” on a London stage, he knew this was something special, something worth making a film about. He followed the group through rehearsals for “Alive and Well,” the chorus’s new big show, one that they continue to perform through the autumn of this year. The documentary takes the perspective of any other touring band documentary. The chorus struggles to learn the material, has creative differences, and anticipates the big performance, all while enduring the byproducts of old age – illness, physical frailty, and death.
As much as we’d hope the magic in the music would save them, the group finds themselves in mourning more than once during the film. Out of the sadness comes a determination to live well right up to the end and to celebrate those who’ve passed. With a particularly moving rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix You” in the group’s performance at the end of the film, we see the sense of community and care these folks have for each other.
The final performance is spellbinding. After all their hard work and the concern that some of the songs wouldn’t come together, they do. The performance goes off without a hitch and, in its funny and heartwarming way, makes you want to find out if the chorus is coming to your town, because it would be that much better live.
Young@Heart is about the celebration of life. It’s the kind of film that confirms that life is worth living to the fullest, whether you’re young or old. And in a culture where the elderly are often rolled off to the nursing home instead of revered for their life experience and wisdom, it’s refreshing to see these seniors buck the stereotype and have such fun doing it.