Just Put Me in a Wheelchair and Get Me to the Show
Young@Heart / Brian Prisco
Film Reviews | April 15, 2008 | Comments ()
I agree with Homer Simpson. Old people don’t need companionship. They need to be isolated and studied so that it can be determined what nutrients they have that might be extracted for our personal use. They’ve served their purpose, and need to follow Charlton Heston into that great big Soylent Green processor in the sky. They shuffle slowly off this mortal coil, clogging traffic with their giant automobiles as they trundle toward early bird specials and bingo parlors at 15 mph with their blinkers on the whole way.
But from the very first screeching notes of The Clash’s “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” sung from the warbling mouth of 92-year-old Eileen Hall to a packed Massachusetts theater hall, I was warped into a fawning infant begging at my grandmother’s knee for cookies, and kissie-kisses, and sweaters with love in every stitch. Young@Heart is the story of The Young @ Hearts, a New England senior-citizen choir that rocks renditions of punk and R&B classics like a wrinkled Me First and the Gimme Gimmes. The documentary follows the chorus members after their European tour (where they sang for the King of Norway!) as they return to Northhampton to prepare for a sold-out hometown crowd.
The Young @ Hearts are helmed by Bob Cilman, the world-weary poster child for black-vested community theatre directors. The chin-bearded cheerleader finds himself in the ambitious and nerve-wracking position of trying to put together a full musical production, complete with a song list that looks like a schizophrenic iPod: Allen Toussaint, The Ramones, Outkast, U2, The Bee Gees, and most of the numbers even have some choreography. What amps up the degree of difficulty is that he’s working with folks on the Shady Acres side of 70. Most people their age are sitting around gluing together poorly assembled craft projects, not belting out Bowie’s “The Golden Years.”
There is no greater purpose to this documentary than telling the story of these geriatric jammers. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. It’s got a positive message, which is a refreshing change of pace from the latest documentaries beating us over the head — George W. Bush will kill you with Iraq while forcing you to eat McDonald’s while shopping at Wal-Mart and then when you get sick, the health care companies will steal your kidneys and all your money! And while there is a time and place for those messages, it’s nice once in a while to hear about something nicer, like old people raging against the light by raging against the machine.
Part of me wishes that Young@Heart was a concert film instead of offering glimpses into the lives of the choir members. The performances and the interspersed music videos are where the movie shines. Their version of “I Wanna Be Sedated” featuring bedrobe-clad seniors angrily shaking their fists as they rock around the nursing home is hilarious. Most of my problems with the movie have to do with the documentarians themselves. Director Stephen Walker seems insistent on interjecting himself into the story, and his narration is distractingly self-serving. He doesn’t let you forget he’s behind the camera, holding a microphone in the faces of the old people, and hounding them like the looming specter of death. He becomes an exploitative vulture, circling the crones with the hopes that one of them will hack up a precious sound bite or, better yet, drop dead on camera.
What’s refreshing is the movie has an overwhelming sense of vibrancy. It would be so easy, in the postapocalyptic era of William Hung, to slough off the entire choir as another gimmick at the expense of those involved. But these people will not be laughed at. There’s a pervading sense of hope, of pride, of joy. It’s not about going gently in the good night aboard Charon’s skiff, but shrieking with Ozzy while riding on the Crazy Train. One of the members is a six-time cancer survivor. Another one is brought back especially for the concert because he’s been unable to tour due to congestive heart failure. He’s featured in the video for “Staying Alive,” funking down a bowling alley in a white suit with black shirt. And a portable oxygen tank. Singing gives them something to live for.
Yes, there are a few deaths in the movie. Which, let’s face it, can hardly come as a spoiler. They are brutally ironic (the latest concert is called “Alive and Well”) and milked shamelessly for pathos, some fault to the filmmakers, some fault to the choir director. While the deaths are tragic and depressing, the choir presses on. One of the members hopes that if she drops dead in the middle of one of the performances, the choir will drag her body off stage and carry on with the show. Much like Johnny Cash’s American works, these songs take on a more profound meaning when sung by the Young @ Hearts, particularly when the deaths add such gravitas. By now, the song “Forever Young” is like the SATs for getting into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but when you see a choir of octogenarians with arms raised like angels, intoning it in memory of their friend’s passing, it raises the words to a different level. “Nothing Compares 2 U” was a fucking Sinead O’Connor song for God’s sake, but hearing a weeping older woman croon it after learning another member passed will break your heart.
One of the most painfully beautiful moments I have seen broke my heart on an exponential scale because of the backstory. Bob Cilman brought back two members to sing a duet of Coldplay’s “Fix You,” but one of them succumbed to his illness and passed. So now Fred Knittel, one of the more charming and hilarious characters in the movie, must perform it as a solo. As the music begins, all you hear is the occasional gasping hiss of his respirator. Then, in an incredible bass voice made gravelly by years of cigarette smoke, he begins a haunting rendition of the song backed by the chorus. We see Fred’s wife in the audience, singing along with the words that he worked so hard to learn. We see the members of the choir start to tear up. We see the family of the man who died crying in their seats. The lyrics crush you, and it’s heartrending. “Tears stream down your face /When you lose something you cannot replace.” Totally emotionally exploitative? Oh, without question. But the endearing bittersweetness of these moments makes the filmmakers’ prying and interrogating more forgivable.
Like the sloppy craft projects senior citizens make, the quality isn’t the point. These aren’t the greatest singers, and sometimes they forget the words. Ultimately, the imperfections are easily cast aside given how enjoyable and precious the end product is. We need to see the struggles — with health, with losing friends, even with remembering the lyrics — to appreciate the final result. Two performers botch parts of James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” but the audience is having such a damn good time jiving in the aisles they clap harder. It’s like watching an elementary school play: When a kid drops a line or screws up, it’s even more adorable, just because they’re performing. After watching the seniors struggle through the rapidly repetitive “Yes I Can Can,” it becomes a victory when they belt it out for their finale at the show.
Young@Heart is going to be a difficult movie to find. It’s playing in extremely limited release. Because frankly, nobody really believes there’s a reason to watch a bunch of fossils blat out rickety covers of rock songs. The movie won’t change the world for the better or open your eyes to profound truths. It is what it is: an emotionally manipulative documentary about singing seniors so rife with overwrought sentimentality that it would make Thomas Kinkade vomit pastel watercolors on the Hallmark Channel. But when it comes down to it, it’ll make you feel good. Like you know you should. Huh!
Brian Prisco is a warrior-poet from the valley of North Hollywood, by way of Philadelphia. He wastes most of his life in desk jobs, biding his time until he finally becomes an actor, a writer, or cannon fodder in the inevitable zombie invasion. He can be found shaking his fist and angrily shouting at clouds on his blog, The Gospel According to Prisco.