Movie Review: “Young@Heart,” Documentary

Stephen Walker’s look at seven weeks in the lives of the Young@Heart Chorus is truly delightful and sad all in one awe-inspiring packing. I hate to use so many cliches in one sentence about a film, but I can’t really do better than to repeat all the typical movie muck and say, “No, really, I mean it.

This group of 70-90 somethings in Northampton,Massachusetts has been signing together under the direction of Bob Cilman for 25 years. What makes them unique, of course, is that they tend to sing songs that are completely unexpected from their particular age group.

They sing punk, classic rock, and contemporary rock all carefully chosen by Cilman to create some truly new interpretations. “I feel Good” or “Stayin’ Alive” or even the Ramone’s “I wanta be Sedated” become completely different songs under this chorus. When a 92 year old woman or a 80-something man who must wear an oxygen machine sing The Ramone’s lament about emotional pain it takes on a layer that I’m pretty sure the Ramone’s never considered. The song suddenly turns into a lament about the pain and indignities of old age. When the same man sings the first verse of “Stayin’ Alive” and claims “I’m a ladies man,” it takes again another level of humor and personal tenacity. It’s wonderful.

Walker follows the chorus as they prepare for a new set of songs and a new European tour. He focuses on several specific members of the chorus, two of which die before the end of the film. While I realize that’s a bit of a spoiler, I don’t think the knowledge will ruin the film for the average viewer. There is so much joy and so much sadness in a single Young@heart moment in this film, that I think the deaths will jerk tears out of anyone even if a person knew they were coming.

This chorus gets everyone excited, from the view of the audiences in the film. The first concert we see is at the local Northampton jail, just an hour after they’ve heard one of the chorus members has died.  During the concert, the prisoners are so moved by the chorus’s performance that they burst into tears during a song the group sings in tribute to their lost friend. When the concert is over, these rather rough looking dudes break huge grins and genuine gushing enthusiasm. One tattooed young man hugs a gray-headed chorus member and declares, “This is the best performance I’ve seen in my entire life.”

During the last concert in the film, there are ten-year old boys in the front row seriously getting down to just about every song. They look like normal ten-year-olds at a WWF match, all aglow in the coolness that is wafting down from the stage.

I spent the vast majority of the film laughing at the pure honesty of the filmmaker and the chorus’s ability not to take themselves too seriously. One example of this rests in the small “music videos” that break up the general narrative. These brief videos are extremely joyful and you can just see the “giggling” behind the eyes of the chorus. This results in a truly fantastic portrait of life and music that is completely original, just like its subject.

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1 Response so far »

  1. 1

    Tipper said,

    How interesting-I have never heard of the Young at Heart Chorus. I can see where the songs would both be surprising and have different meanings because of the age of the folks singing them.


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