I would have predicted that Young At Heart would be the big indie movie this summer. Old people singing edgy rock songs? How can that not be fun?
But I’m told that the buzz around The Visitor is better. For whatever “buzz” we have, The Boy and I liked this one better. A lot.
This documentary concerns chorus director Bob Cilman’s group of septuagenarians and octogenarians (and a couple of nonagenarians!) singing The Ramones, Sonic Youth, The Zombies, etc., as they prepare for a new season–only seven weeks away.
All right, you smart ass punk kids who are thinking, “Well, that’s the music of their youth, right?” Go to your rooms. Actually, these guys were well into their 30s when their oldest song (“She’s Not There”) was a hit.
The group rehearses three times a week and various members are given solos and duets and marvelously large font lyric sheets that they still need to use giant magnifying glasses to read. This works for a couple of reasons. First, Cilman takes it seriously: He pushes the boundaries. For example, he chooses Schizophrenic by Sonic Youth, which is not exactly a crowd-pleasing anthem, and the old folks don’t get it. Meanwhile, the Pointer Sisters funk classic “Yes We Can Can”, is just challenging to get two dozen old folks to sing all 71 of the “cans” right. And then there’s just the matter of some things being hard for your leads to get, as with the two lead singers having trouble with “I Feel Good”.
There’s a real sense of suspense here, as you the old folks work and struggle to get things right. But that’s the other thing that makes it work: These senior citizens are pros. What they lack in skill, or what age has dulled, they make up for in dedication. Cilman takes it seriously and treats them with respect–which is to say that he sometimes busts their chops for not getting things right. (Now, in the world of choral directors, he’s pretty mild but he’s not toothless, and some of the stuff he does may shock those of you who’re not familiar with the world of choral directors and conductors.)
I’m not giving away anything by telling you that they do own the music by the end. (If they didn’t, this would suck as a viewing experience.) But the suspense is still there as changes are made and they own the music in a surprising way.
It’s reminiscent of the Langley Schools Music Project in that it’s not necessarily the most homogeneous of choirs, smoothed down to peanut-butter commercial perfection. There are even a few moments where you can actually get the chills, such as when Fred Knittle sings in the final concert. This guy’s got a marvelous voice, even hooked up to an oxygen tank. For most you might say they sound good for their age–which actually is pretty usual for a choir–but Fred (and some others) have voices that are just plain good, no qualifications.
Mixed in with the documentary are a few low budget music videos which are quite cool (though some don’t think they belong in a documentary). But I thought these were good chances to hear songs all the way through, with a little studio production and without interruption. They do “I Wanna Be Sedated”, “Road To Nowhere” and “Golden Years”.
Now, I’ve often noted that, in any given family-dysfunction film, if there’s an old person, the old person will die by the end of the movie. (Most conspicuously in recent films like Little Miss Sunshine and The Man In The Chair.) But here we have over two-dozen people averaging 80 years of age, and we follow them over a three month period. Actuarially speaking, I think about half could be expected to die.
But where I tend to roll my eyes when I see the old person in the family-dysfunction film, in this movie, you’re practically holding your breath, crossing your fingers and hoping everyone makes it to the big show. This is a potential spoiler, so skip down to the next paragraph if you want to be pristine: Not everyone does make it, and a big part of the final act of the movie is how the group handles the losses. Some people find this sad, but I say it’s going out in style. Sad, to me, is dying because you have nothing to do.
Anyway, you’ll notice that I linked to the originals of the songs instead of the Young @ Heart versions. I would consider it a bigger spoiler to see the musical numbers outside of the documentary than it is to know the fate of each choir member. But they’re available on YouTube, or a lot of them are.
I’ve heard conflicting stories about a soundtrack. There isn’t one yet, and perhaps may never be because they couldn’t afford to license all the songs. (I don’t know how the Langley School Project got away with it.)
In any event, the movie is touching, funny, not mawkish, engrossing and heart-warming. Is the whole thing a little “gimmicky”? Yeah, maybe, but it works, for all the reasons mentioned above. Seeing old people sing edgy rock songs is a good hook, but if they didn’t do a good job, audiences would turn away.
But in a lot of ways, the songs take on new meaning being sung by these folks. And it’s a meaning worth hearing.