BOOKS AND ARTS APRIL 18, 2008
What happens when a musical form associated with the dubious glamour of dying young becomes entwined with the less glamorous and far less dubious eventuality of dying old? This is the question implicitly posed, and movingly answered, by the documentary Young@Heart.
The film draws its title from its subject, the Young@Heart chorus, a group of seniors based in Northampton, Massachussetts, who range in age from 74 to 93. When the chorus was initially formed twenty-five years ago, its musical repertoire consisted mostly of vaudeville songs. But after it experimented with Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy Diddy,” explains music director Bob Sillman (a youthful hipster at 53), “nothing was ever the same again.” The chorus’s catalogue is now made up almost entirely of rock songs, including numbers by the Clash, Bob Dylan, and the Talking Heads.
In typical documentary fashion, Young@Heart follows the group’s preparation for a major concert: We watch them struggle with a few new songs Sillman is trying to add for the show (Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” and, most provocatively, Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia”); we’re treated to a few low-tech music videos put together by the documentary’s producer, Sally George (The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” the T-Heads’ “Road to Nowhere”); and we get to know a few of the chorus’s more colorful characters, lively grannies and gramps who, despite their overwhelming preference for classical music, enjoy belting out tunes with some “juice” in them.
In the early going, the film plays like an enjoyable novelty but a relatively frivolous one, a real-life, feature-length variation on the helium-singing granny from The Wedding Singer. There is a prolonged debate between two of the chorus members over which side of a CD is “the side that plays,” for instance, as well as another’s gleeful description of the pleasures of sex over 70: “It gets better. It takes longer and it’s more fun.” Odd as it is to see the Ramones lyric “put me in a wheelchair” sung by an elderly man who may never rise up out of his, the specters of infirmity and death are initially well in the background.
They do not remain there long, though. In preparation for the concert, Sillman tries to bring back two former members of the chorus who had quit for severe health-related reasons. (One had been so ill he’d been administered the last rites.) With their appearance, the film acquires resonances both ominous and inspirational. The chorus members all recognize that their remaining spans are likely to be measured in years, not decades, and perhaps not even so much as that. As a result, they have a profound earnestness of purpose. Asked how it will feel if he is unable to find his singing voice again, one of the former members hoping for one last curtain call replies, “Devastating.”
Whether by chance or design (Sillman’s or documentarian Stephen Walker’s), song after song seems to underline this precariousness: “Staying Alive” plays like a happily defiant anthem; “Every Breath You Take” suddenly denotes finitude rather than forever; and the lyrics to “Road to Nowhere” seem almost a bleak joke: “We know where we’re going, but we don’t know where we’ve been ... And the future is certain. Give us time to work it out.”
Indeed, not every member of the chorus lives to see the concert. The group learns of one death on the day it’s scheduled to perform at a nearby prison, and their memorial rendition of Dylan’s “Forever Young”--and the inmates’ response to it--is unexpectedly powerful, a moment of emotion neither saccharine nor sorrowful. So, too, are the later songs dedicated to departed friends: Sinead O’Connor’s “Nothing Compares 2 U,” and Coldplay’s “Fix You,” which is sung at the concluding concert to the soft accompaniment of the soloist’s puffing oxygen tank.
Young@Heart is not a complicated movie, nor even an especially well-made one. The narration and interviews conducted by Walker are frequently cloying, delivered in a Brit-inflected singsong that seems better suited to a celebrity lifestyles program. Yet there is something primal about this film, an intimate document of perseverance and mortality, the art of the possible and recognition of the inevitable. The word “uplifting” has fallen into such misuse over the years that it sometimes seems solely to describe a laboriously manufactured sentiment, but Young@Heart is uplifting in the genuine sense. Its subjects don’t rage against the dying of the light; rather, they try to persuade the light to linger just a little longer, until the song is over.
Christopher Orr is a senior editor at The New Republic.