I got off work yesterday at 5:30PM and surprised Shawn with the idea of going to see the movie Young@Heart. It was playing in downtown Bellevue, so it wasn't a hard sell: traffic for an hour or dinner and a movie?
The movie is a British documentary about a chorus from Northampton, Massachusetts whose member's average age is 84. At the time of the filming the chorus' oldest member was 93. The chorus' musical director, Bob Cilman, started out selecting old timey type songs for the group to perform (they were founded in 1982). But as time went on Cilman began to incorporate more modern compositions. The movie, for instance, features that group performing "I Feel Good" by James Brown, "Staying Alive" by the Bee Gees and "Schizophrenia" by Sonic Youth. Their work has seen the members tour Europe, Australia, Canada, and the U.S. They even have a CD available on CDBaby.
The film follows the chorus as they prepare for a new show. Cilman wants to introduce 6 new songs into the show and viewers watch as he works with the members to try to get them prepared. The members are at first skeptical of each tune. Cilman has chosen "Life During Wartime" by the Talking Heads along with the James Brown and Sonic Youth tunes mentioned about. It's hard work for these folks. Sometimes they can't quite get the key right. Sometimes they can't get the rhythm down. Sometimes Cilman is disgusted with the lack of progress and wants to hang up each of the songs. However, it spurs the members of the chorus on to get them down. These folks love to perform. They clearly are having a great time.
What can I say about the songs? They are done straight. They sometimes provoke amusement (the chorus pokes fun at themselves), but they also provoke joy and at times great, poignancy and sometimes even sadness. Performed by this group, one can hear all of the lyrics clearly and at the same time hear them in a new light. Sure, it's easy to laugh when they sing "I Wanna Be Sedated", but there's also a fierceness to it and, given their ages, maybe something deeper. At the beginning of the film when the members jump into "Should I Stay or Should I Go" everyone laughs at first, but while we're seeing joy from the members on stage, can one watch it without thinking also about the fact that some of the folks that we're watching might be going very soon? Permanently?
The songs in the film are great, but what really makes this documentary are the members of the chorus. The interviews with them and following their lives, their humor, their Joie de vivre. Watch as the 93 year old member flirts with the camera crew and has great fun introducing all three members to her bedroom. Or as the documentary mentions that she's the only member of her assisted living home who has a key to the entrance because after her gigs the other residents and the staff are usually in bed and cannot let her in. Also watch how one member has written his own eulogy which includes a funny dig at his grandson.
There are tragic moments as well. Two members died during the filming. One of the members had been placed on the poster for the new show and he was to sing "Life During Wartime" in concert (he nails it during rehearsal by the way). Another member was actually a former member who was being brought back to sing a Coldplay song as a duet. He suffered a heart attack, but came to work the next day against his son's wishes in order to do what he loved. I didn't see a dry eye in the theater when after the second death one of the members did a rendition of Sinnead O'Connor's hit, "Nothing Compares 2 U". Indeed, there were several moments during the documentary that I saw people crying.
And that's what makes this film great - it's celebration of life in all of it's phases, glorious or otherwise. This isn't 4 star film making, but I'd give it 3 to 3.5 stars on a scale of 4. It makes you laugh, cry, care, and it makes you feel hopeful. While watching the movie I was grateful that I was watching a documentary. I thought with horror about how Hollywood, if it tried to tell this tale, would badly screw it up. Rather than true feelings and evoking heartfelt moments in the viewer, the American film industry would reduce it into caricature and a couple of heart-string-pulling moments (no doubt complete with intrusive symphonic production to let you know you're supposed to feel sad).
When leaving the theater, Shawn said to me, "I guess I can't complain that my knees ache and crack." Two women in front of us overheard her remarks and laughed. One of them turned to Shawn and said, "No, you can't." We joined their laughter. The film has that effect on you. See it if you can.