Monday, May 19, 2008

Young @ Heart: Sing loud!

Young @ Heart (2007) • View trailer for Young @ Heart
Four stars (out of five). Rating: PG, for absolutely no reason
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 5.14.08
Buy DVD: Young @ Heart

This film's indomitable spirit is palpable.

No matter how overwhelmed you are about world events, no matter how bad your day, no matter how dismayed you might be — and this is the important one — about any element of encroaching old age, Young @ Heart will make you feel better. Director Stephen Walker's documentary should be bottled and prescribed: Watch once each week before bed. Pleasant dreams guaranteed.
Having learned only hours earlier that one of their members has died, the Young
@ Heart chorus nonetheless rallies for a performance in front on an unusual
audience: the hardened inmates at the local Hampshire County Jail. But as this
film demonstrates time and again, even convicts are no match for the
irrepressible joy that blazes from these two dozen singers.

It's that inspirational.

The previews seen for the past month give an ample glimpse of the giddy enjoyment to be found in this profile of the soon-to-be-even- more-famous Young @ Heart Chorus of Northampton, Mass., but the film in its totality is even more unexpectedly delightful.

I've no idea how many hours of footage Walker and editor Chris King condensed in order to produce this heartwarming gem, but they did a masterful job.

They shot for seven straight weeks while the chorus rehearsed for a one-night-only performance in its home town, splicing this footage with more personal interviews and several music videos — producer Sally George directed these — that are drop-dead hilarious (The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," David Bowie's "Golden Years" and The BeeGees' "Stayin' Alive").

To borrow that hyperbolic phrase from Hollywood's youth, the results will make you laugh, cry and experience every emotion in between. You'll also be breathless, and more than once.

Young @ Heart isn't merely entertaining, poignant and unforgettable; most of all, it's important. Aside from reminding our offensively snobbish, youth-obsessed culture that life does too begin at 70, and that seniors bring a wealth of experience and pragmatic savvy to everything they do, Walker's film humanizes its subjects to the degree that their outer physical appearance melts away, and we see only a fresh-faced, incandescent inner glow.

At one point, as one of these elderly gentlemen endures a good-natured birthday greeting, we're told that he looks and behaves more like a 10-year-old boy.

Indeed, this could be said of every member of the chorus. They're all childlike, in the most positive sense: curious, fearless, open to new experiences and quite willing to show the world a thing or two.

So far, we could be discussing any chorus of seniors. This one is unique because these 70-, 80- and 90-somethings have become famous for their eye-opening renditions of rock, punk and R&B hits ... the more unexpected the material, the better.

Walker opens his film with one of its iconic images, as the invincible Eileen Hall stands before a microphone on stage in a jammed, packed-to-the-rafters theater, bellows an opening note and then follows that by yelling (more or less in key) "Should I stay ... or should I go?" as the chorus then kicks into The Clash song of the same title.

The group has existed since 1982, when director Bob Cilman molded the Northampton Senior Center chorus into something ... unusual. He still leads the group today, still carefully selects a program of songs that varies from James Brown's "I Feel Good" to Sonic Youth's dissonant rock anthem, "Schizophrenia."

He understands that much of the group's success comes from the juxtaposition of angry-young-rebel lyrics and these angelically sweet older faces, but under no circumstances does Cilman consider any of this a stunt. The two dozen members of the Young @ Heart chorus delight in their ability to kick up their heels and boogie down; it keeps them alive.

But I do suspect Cilman gets a kick out of the often bewildered and pained expressions from his chorus members, each time they first hear the original versions of these songs; Walker's camera catches an occasional devilish gleam in his eyes. But to their credit, the chorus members always embrace the more user-friendly arrangements that Cilman concocts with the help of the group's five-piece band.

Getting the often tongue-twisting lyrics down, though ... that's another matter.

The film traces the evolution of a rehearsal period that introduces half a dozen new songs, none more difficult than Allen Toussaint's New Orleans anthem, "Yes We Can Can," with — as Walker, also serving as narrator, carefully tabulates — its "71 cans." Cilman, blessed with the patience of a saint, nonetheless has no interest in lowering any of his musical standards; he works these folks mercilessly.

Dora B. Morrow, cute as a button, doesn't think anybody can master those lyrics.

"It's too haa-aard," she insists, somehow getting two syllables out of that final word.

And as these seven weeks progress — and those 71 cans tumble out of key, out of cadence and out of syncopation — Cilman's optimism begins to flag, and we wonder whether he'll decide to cut his losses and ax the tune.

It's not the only troublesome song, and far from this film's only note of suspense. As this is to be a hometown performance, Cilman decides to re-unite the chorus with two former members who'd been forced to quit, a few years earlier, by declining health: Fred Knittle, sidelined in 1999 by a heart attack; and Bob Salvini, whose 2003 rendition of The Police's "Every Breath You Take" remains legendary.

Cilman's plan is to have these two men duet on Coldplay's "Fix You," but these great intentions are fraught with uncertainty. Both men are terribly, terribly frail: Their spirits are willing, but their bodies may betray them.

As the weeks progresses, we can't imagine such a loss, despite a shattering sense of inevitability. The wise- cracking, mordantly funny Knittle, in particular, gives this film a tremendous amount of heart; he and the equally feisty Hall (such a flirt!) seem indestructible.

But however much these people remain vital as a result of their camaraderie and spirited performances, reality cannot be denied.

"We don't get to keep these people forever," Cilman admits, in the press notes. It's a telling line, and I wish he'd said it in the film. Logic dictates that Cilman regularly faces one of Charles Schulz's most sage observations, when he had Charlie Brown comment that, "Goodbyes always make my throat hurt ... I need more hellos."

How many scores of goodbyes must Cilman have endured, during the quarter- century existence of his beloved chorus?

And yet he rallies anew each time, knowing — both for his own sake, and for each singer — that the show must go on.

Even so, things get tough when two of our film stars die within a week of each other.

"You do go on," Hall insists, speaking directly to the camera, "because you realize everybody has to go on in the end. We all do. You've got to keep going. What's the good of falling apart and feeling sad? You do inwardly, but you try not to show it."

Cilman's solution is sheer genius and this film's dramatic high point. Obligated to a sort of rehearsal performance in front of a very tough audience — the inmates at the Hampshire County Jail — the informal, outdoor stage goes dead quiet when Pat Linderme delivers a heartfelt solo of Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U."

The camera slowly pans the crowd, zooming here and there for a tight close-up, and damned if some of these iron-hearted felons don't get choked up.

You can't create a moment like that: Its power derives from its spontaneity.

Young @ Heart is filled with such scenes. The movie demands repeat viewing, and I've no doubt, when the 2008 Academy Awards are handed out, that this one will take the prize for feature documentary.

I just hope the Academy producers have the smarts to book Cilman and his chorus as performers. They'll bring the house down.

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