Directed by Stephen Walker. (2008, PG, 107 min.)
REVIEWED By Steve Davis, Fri., April 18, 2008
A documentary about a choral group of lovable octogenarians whose repertoire includes songs by Sonic Youth and the Talking Heads? It sounds gimmicky, scary even. But despite an occasional lapse into nudge-nudge jokes about geriatric sex, incontinence, and the driving skills of the elderly, Young@Heart eschews the clichés about old people for something that we can all relate to: our own mortality. Shot in a straightforward style that feels deceptively simple, this documentary spends two months with these senior citizens as they prepare for their Alive and Well concert in their home base of Northampton, Mass. During the course of these eight weeks, the drama of everyday life runs the gamut from the comical to the heartbreaking. During rehearsals, the chorus struggles with the daunting lyrics of “Yes We Can Can” (the filmmakers repeatedly remind you that the word “can” is repeated 71 times in the song), while offstage some members of the chorus are engaged in the more sobering struggle between life and death. What brings together this disparate group of old-timers is the joy they feel when performing songs you’d never expect to hear being sung by someone born before World War II. (Try to imagine your grandmother crooning something from the Clash songbook.) Moreover, songs like Bowie’s "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees’ "Stayin’ Alive" take on an altogether different (often tongue-in-cheek) meaning when sung by someone with gray hair and wrinkles. Young@Heart more than subtly suggests that the secret to growing old is to feel young, and – based on what you see in this film – there may be some truth to that platitude. In many ways, the movie’s theme is a contemporary variation on the signature line from Dylan Thomas’ famous poem about old age: By virtue of their dedication to their choral group, the people you meet in this film are, in their own way, raging against the dying of the light. This is most eloquently captured in a scene in which they perform at a nearby low-security prison, where the audience of male inmates is decades younger. Having just found out that a member of the group has passed away, the group dedicates their rendition of Bob Dylan’s "Forever Young" to him. The emotional impact of this performance, both upon the young men in the film who experience it firsthand and those of us experiencing it in the film audience, is nothing short of devastating. There may not be many things in this life that one can guarantee, but rest assured, it’s at this moment in Young@Heart where there won’t be a dry eye in the house.