By JANE WILSON, Special To The Bulletin | Published May 1, 2008
Touching, inspiring and laugh-out-loud funny, “Young@Heart” is a film that will stay with viewers long after they leave the theater. Demonstrating the strength of music to touch the soul, it is simply one of the best movies of this year.
“Young@Heart” is a documentary about the Young@Heart chorus, a group of seniors based in Northampton, Mass. What sets this group apart is that they specialize in rock and roll in their repertoire, presenting songs originally performed by groups such as the Clash, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth and the Ramones.
Part of the humor of the film springs from the incongruity of seeing older people blasting out tunes most usually associated with young rebels, but the concept actually makes for brilliant music. The quality of the music is excellent, and the lyrics of the songs often take on unexpected depths because of who is singing them. James Brown’s “I Feel Good” has an entirely new meaning when sung by Stan Goldman, 77, and Dora B. Parker Morrow, 85. The already affecting Coldplay song “Fix You” becomes a showstopper as touching lyrics reflect both a recent loss to the chorus and the health difficulties experienced by soloist Fred Knittle.
Director Stephen Walker follows the chorus as they learn new material for an upcoming concert. Footage of their rehearsals is interspersed with interviews with members, and it would be difficult to imagine a group of more interesting, lively and entertaining men and women. Getting a glimpse into the lives and personalities of the chorus members adds to the enjoyment of the music.
Goldman, who loves Shakespeare and classical music, must conquer the lyrics of James Brown alongside the ladylike Morrow. The director uses Goldman’s deadpan expressions to provide hilarious reactions to the events going on around him. Knittle and Bob Salvini are former members of the group who have had to leave because of health problems, but they are coming back for a special performance. Salvini’s trepidation and Knittle’s larger-than-life personality make their stories special. Eileen Hall’s irrepressible personality and showmanship make her the heart of the group, while Joe Benoit’s steadiness and dependability make him the backbone.
Viewers also meet Lenny Fontaine, proud to be the one who can see well enough to drive his friends to practice, and Steve Martin, a former military man with an eye for the ladies. Every one of the men and women in the group is portrayed as a person one would like to know or to emulate. On exiting the theater, this reviewer heard more than one person say, “I hope I’m like that when I’m that age.”
The film makes it clear that being a part of the chorus actually adds to the vitality of its members. The rehearsals and the performances, including the regular European tours, are interesting and rewarding for the performers, of course, but the members also say that the very act of singing and making music makes them feel better, forget about their aches and pains for a while. In addition, the chorus gives them a social group and fellowship. It is evident that the men and women of Young@Heart have a deep respect and affection for each other.
Young@Heart was started in 1982, and early performances featured standards and vaudeville. Chorus director Bob Cilman had the idea of featuring more contemporary music, and the reputation of the group soon took off. Cilman is the benevolent taskmaster of the group, insisting on the highest quality and pushing the chorus members to perform at their best. He describes how the members always think he is crazy when he gives them a new song to learn, but how they always come around in the end. Many of his choices are inspired, as the final results prove.
As rehearsals progress, the Young@Heart singers struggle to learn new lyrics and begin to get a feel for their new songs. It is gratifying and inspiring to see how they persevere, even when a task seems more than they can handle—and this is true both on and off stage. Many of the performers are faced with difficult life situations, but they all handle their struggles with grace and dignity.
The chorus suffers some losses along the way, and these are poignant. The most touching moment of the film comes from an unexpected source, however. When Young@Heart travels to a local prison, their performance of “Forever Young” brings the audience to tears. Seeing these tough-looking men so visibly moved at the music is truly memorable and heartrending. After the show, chorus members mingle with the prisoners and are greeted like long-lost grandparents. The power of music is demonstrated simply and beautifully in this sequence.
“Young@Heart” combines humor, warmth and some great music to create an entertaining and uplifting film—this is an easy film to recommend. As one member of the chorus characterized one of the songs, “It’s got a lot of life—that’s what we have, a lot of life.”
Jane Wilson, a local writer and movie enthusiast, holds a doctorate in English from the University of Georgia. She is a parishioner at St. Pius X Church, Conyers.