It sounds like your worst nightmare: a documentary about a group of old age pensioners… singing… off-key, mostly. Trust me, anyone with a granny, an aging parent, or plans to get old should watch this movie. And what’s more, you’ll enjoy it too.
Directed by Stephen Walker and produced by Channel Four last year, Young@Heart got a new lease of life after acclaimed appearances at film festivals (including Sundance) and a successful North American release. It deserves its return engagement on the big screen here, if only because it’s a celebration of the kind of communal experience you just can’t enjoy with your TV set.
The Young At Heart choir is based in Northampton, Massachusetts, and has an average age of 80. What makes this choir a little different from what you expect is the repertoire.
The opening sequence is one of the funniest and most joyful I’ve seen in a movie this year. A crowd goes into raptures as Eileen Hall approaches the microphone leaning heavily on her walking frame (it’s hard to believe but we find out later she’s 92) and bursts out with “Should I stay or should I go?”
Cut to Walker interviewing Eileen. That’s a punk song, isn’t it? he asks. “I should think so,” she says, swearing. “Have you heard it before?”
Eileen has been with the choir for two decades, and remembers when they used to perform show tunes. The musical director – Bob Cilman – decided they needed to branch out after their audience went wild for a rendition of Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy”. Nowadays their shows are likely to include, in Eileen’s words “the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, and that newer group… The Crash?” Walker follows the six-week rehearsal process as they prepare for a new show. This time the new songs include James Brown’s “I feel alright”, Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” and “Schizophrenia”, by Sonic Youth. The singers (and I use that term loosely) are down with James Brown, but decidedly dubious about the latter.
The group’s name is well chosen though. They might not select these songs for themselves (a couple of the interviewees admit they prefer classical music, another opts for “The Sound of Music”), but they are open to new experiences and have learned to trust Cilman. And the payoff is rapturous applause in packed concert halls.
Even though few of them can hold a tune, the performances work. A lot of it comes down to the lyrics, which are more spoken than sung. As Cilman says at one point, in these performances, “they really come from somewhere”. That is, a song almost automatically takes on more gravitas when it comes from the mouth of an 80-year-old.
We start off the movie tickled and delighted by the oddity of it all. And we keep right on laughing as we get to know some of the singers, who seem incredibly bright and upbeat and often genuinely witty. But as it goes on, Young at Heart becomes more moving, and sadly, a film about mortality.
The climax, for me, comes when the group performs for a captive audience in a local prison – just a couple of hours after hearing one of their number has passed away. Like us, the convicts are amused and maybe a bit patronising at the start of the show. But then when they dedicate a song to their dead friend, and launch into Forever Young, well, it’s not the old folk who look like they’re on the verge of tears…
As someone who skipped Shine a Light because I thought the Rolling Stones were passed it I thoroughly recommend this movie, and now I wonder if Mick and the boys might still improve with age…
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