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Rock of Ages: 'Young@Heart'

Coldplay, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, and the Ramones are a few bands UK-based filmmaker Stephen Walker loves. So, when he was told he could hear some of their greatest tunes, all in one night, he was down for it. When he found out the songs would be sung by a chorus of old folks, some in their late 80s, he changed his tune.

"I thought it would be ghastly, the worst idea in the world," he said in a phone interview from his London office. Had he followed his first reaction, he wouldn't have made the award-winning documentary feature making its regional premiere at South by Southwest prior to its U.S. release by Fox Searchlight. And he wouldn't have heard the tunes sung in a way that completely blew him away.

Young@Heart takes its name from the Massachusetts-based chorus led by Bob Cilman, who is also the executive director of the Northampton Arts Council. In an earlier incarnation, the Young@Heart chorus sang more traditional choral numbers. Following a chance experiment with a couple of rock tunes at a nursing home, Cilman was startled by the new quality the songs took and added them to the Young@Heart repertoire. The songs were a hit, particularly abroad, where Walker, a longtime documentary filmmaker working mostly in TV, first encountered them. The original Young@Heart was a documentary commissioned by the BBC's Channel 4. The newer, feature-length documentary is transferred to 35mm, with additional footage and fully remixed, theatre-quality sound.

The film follows the chorus as they prepare for a 2006 concert while looking at aging in a respectful and entirely unsentimental way. Interspersed throughout Young@Heart are several "music promos" (known as music videos on this side of the pond). Those segments are among Walker's favorite moments, though making sure they contributed to the fabric of the story while keeping all the other threads progressing and intact was something of a minor miracle. Young@Heart is not a concert film it's a complicated bundle of stories – the cast, the featured music, foreground stories, background stories, and of course, the music videos. The effortless weave of all the threads belies all the hair-pulling that went on behind the scenes. "There were times I wanted to throw myself out the cutting-room window," Walker said.

Fortunately, there were sublime moments as well. Walker is most fond of the music video for the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." Filmed in a nursing-home setting, the video becomes an ironic protest statement about how the old are warehoused and forgotten. It's also quite funny.

"But I think they're laughing at us as much as we're laughing at them," Walker says. "To me, it's filled with a righteous anger. It's brilliant."


Stephen Walker, Bob Cilman, and several of the vocalists featured in Young@Heart will attend tonight's screening.

Saturday, March 15, 6:30pm, Paramount

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