Laura CliffordA British docu crew, led by helmer Stephen Walker, come to America to chronicle another season of an octogenarian choral group so popular they have sold out concerts and toured Europe. Their youthful music director, Bob Sillman (at the ripe old age of 53), challenges their prior use of show tunes and standards with an infusion of punk, rock and blues songs that make this gang of old folk feel and be “Young@Heart.”
What a wonderfully entertaining little docu that showcases a stalwart band of singers whose youngest member clocks in at age 71. Although the huge cast of characters’ (and I mean characters!) total age exceeds 1000 years, this is everything that its title promises. Bob Sillman shows his dedication to his chanteuses and chanteurs as he cajoles, coaxes and gets peevish with them as he tries to get them to learn and perform the out there music of the 1960’s through the 80’s, including The Clash, Sonic Youth, The Talking Heads, James Brown, The Rolling Stones, Coldplay and David Bowie. And, this elderly troupe does a fine and funny job singing the songs.
Walker and company follow the chorus through their many weeks-long rehearsals as they prepare for their first concert of the season. Along the way, we get to know some of the members and look into their lives – the oldest member, 92-year old Aileen, Bob who suffers from congestive heart disease, forgetful Lenny, clothes and shoe horse Dora, Stan who can’t get the lyrics to “I Feel Good” quite right and speed demon Steve, among others. It is a funny look into these wonderful performers and is chock full of their music. But, there is sadness, too, as two of the chorus’s members die just before the big show.
As the film tracks the progress of the Young@Heart chorus during their practice we watch as Bob Sillman shepherds his gang through learning such complex songs as “Yes We Can, Can” (with no fewer than 71 “cans” in the tune). The journey culminates in their opening night at the sold out performance in a New Hampshire music hall. The result is a feel good documentary that has us laughing and crying with our new friends.
You don’t see many films about the elderly that demonstrates they are, indeed, alive and well (the title for their concert tour). “Young@Heart” proves that aging is in the head and this group of oldsters belies their advanced years. I give it an enthusiastic B+.
The film pulls you in from its opening frame - a gaping mouth, not unlike the Rolling Stones' "Sticky Fingers" logo except one that's seen even more years than those aging rockers' - is emitting a ragged caterwaul. The camera pulls back to reveal 92 year-old Eileen Hall, one of a white-shirted, black-panted chorale group who proceeds to ask quite practically 'Darling, you've got to let me know - should I stay or should I go?'
So, now that British director Stephen Walker (“Hiroshima – A Day That Shook The World”) has assured our attention with this bracing senior version of The Clash, he lays his groundwork. Young@Heart are a singing group from Northampton, Massachusetts and their director, the fifty-something Bob Cilman, has agreed to let Walker document the seven weeks of a live show's creation, one they are preparing for their own home town.
Cilman himself is a marvel, choosing eclectic songs for the group he has shepherded since the early 80's. Sonic Youth's “Schizophrenia” isn't initially received well by the oldsters, but the group master it. Much more difficult is getting Stan Goldman to remember his two solo lines of James Brown's "I Feel Good" and get him in sink with mother of fifteen and clotheshorse Dora Morrow's opening howl.
Walker balances the rehearsals with 'getting to know you' asides, such as a visit to the flirtatious Hall and Steve Martin, a speed freak who drives 130 mph and whose home contains a 'Still a Sexy Beast' doll from his girlfriend. Speaking of speed freaks, Walker gets his camera moving via a ride with heavy-footed Lenny, who carpools members to rehearsal (and duets with Joe Benoit on the Talking Heads's "Life During Wartime") and through the windows of the group's bus. We also get to know two retired members of the chorus who are returning to join up on Coldplay's "Fix You." Sadly, one of them, Bob Salvini, dies suddenly. His partner Fred Knittle, attached to an oxygen machine because of congestive heart failure, soldiers on and sings the song solo and will move you to tears (he's also one of the group's most melodic singers and quite a cut up). A week before the final show, another current core member, featured dead center on the show's advertising poster, passes away within a week of Salvini and the group and its director are rattled, as are we. The show must go on, however.
Walker and his gang also created four music videos with the group that are interspersed here - watch for Stan's way-out 'Angel...' top note in David Bowie's "Golden Years" - inspired staging. Cilman gets mileage out of assigning songs that address the effects of aging, and so Knittle stars in "Stayin' Alive" and the group wows inmates of the Hampshire County Jail with their rendition of "Forever Young."
"Young@Heart" is such a hilarious, moving and uplifting piece of work the only thing left to do after seeing it is to start campaigning the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences's documentary arm to change their rules - the film will not be eligible for Academy consideration this year because it aired on BBC TV in Great Britain.
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