"Young @ Heart" (Stephen Walker and Sally George, 2007) Good movies need good casts and "Young at Heart," the documentary about seniors singing rock songs has one of the best casts in movies in many years. The motley gang of oldsters, struggling mightily with the rhythms and lingo of late model rock n' roll, charm and beguile. The characters and cranks, alike, are so fragile you worry for them and mourn briefly at the news of a death in the family, one of those proud voices stilled.
Conceived and led by Bob Cilman—one gets the idea that he more than lives the impresario role—the choir-leader picks the songs, teaches, cajoles, cheer-leads and nannies the old folks who are nothing but game...even at the risk of their health...to get out there and put on a show.
Quite the show it is. The film chronicles the ramp-up and try-outs of new material for an upcoming performance from the first halting attempts (they do "Yes, we Can-Can," something I'd be hard-pressed to get right!) to the suspense-filled stage appearance—will they pull it off?—before a sold out crowd of towns-people and family-members of fallen comrades. Interspersed are ingenious music videos that are clever and funny and are something of a tonic throughout the movie.
Because hovering over the film is the specter of mortality. The singers are frail, in failing health, their eyesight failing, their voices quavering, suffering from diabetes and heart flutters. But combined with the angst and nihilism of rock songs, the result is poignant, even defiant. To see Fred Knittle (who passed in January 2009), morbidly obese, on oxygen, going through Coldplay's "Fix You" is a revelation, not only due to the performer, but for the effect he has on the material—the song is transformed to a world-weary hymn. The Bee Gee's "Staying Alive," that vampire of the disco days is dug up and becomes a cheekily triumphant "up you" to death.
And in one of the most poignant moments, Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," sung to a group of hardened inmates, growing misty with it, becomes a benediction from one group of survivors to aspirants, only hoping to. The post-concert interaction between them brings tears to the eyes.
"By the end of the filming, I felt like I had 25 new grand-parents," says Walker in his voice-over.
Exactly well put. 25 new grandparents, their lives preserved for all time on film, in a special moment in time.
The poster for the concert. Joe Benoit, in front, died before the concert.