Friday, January 08, 2010

Music Therapy: Young@Heart

This must be a hardcore band—some of its members have been read the last rites. That’s because the average age of the Young@Heart Chorus is eighty, but their repertoire—punk, alternative, and classic R&B—is decidedly contemporary. Based in Northampton, Massachusetts, many in the Chorus might be all too familiar with the inside of hospitals, but music still has an energizing effect on them in Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart (trailer here), which airs this coming Tuesday on PBS stations across the country as part of the current season of Independent Lens.

The one whippersnapper of the group is Bob Cilman, their fifty-something musical director, whose somewhat eclectic musical tastes lead to some unlikely new songs for their big upcoming concert. With a mere six weeks of rehearsal time, Cilman and the chorus are trying to get their heads around Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” (with its 71 “can’s”) and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” Yet surprisingly, James Brown’s “I Feel Good” may prove to be the most troublesome.

As one might expect, leading the group can be a challenge for Cilman, but he is surprisingly tough when driving the Young@Hearters. However, it becomes clear this is actually a sign of respect. He sets high expectations rather than condescendingly giving everyone credit just for showing up. However, two returning former members are exceptions. Forced to quit because of severe medical issues, Cilman is confident whatever they can bring to their duet on Cold Play’s “Fix You” will be moving because of what their comeback represents to them.

Structurally, Y@H mostly follows the familiar documentary template as the Chorus gear up for their big gig. Then tragedy strikes, forcing the Young@Hearters to confront their mortality. Yet, the show must go on, including a prison gig they play literally right after hearing some heartbreaking news. Indeed, this might be their finest hour in the film, making the eventual formal concert seem anticlimactic.

The general animating spirit behind the chorus, that seniors should follow their passions instead of sitting around waiting to die, is admirable and the Young@Hearters illustrate it well, despite their several intervening health issues. Of course, they are all spirited in a predictably cute way. Unfortunately, they are poorly served by director Stephen Walker’s glib narration, which jarringly clashes with the often serious events his film documents. When listening to him, it is difficult to tell whether or not he is mocking his subjects. That is obviously problematic. In his defense though, the chorus members all seem comfortable around him, often speaking quite candidly about sensitive subjects, like their health.

Musically, the chorus is something of a novelty act, but they deserve credit for putting together a fun show. As it turns out, “Yes We Can Can” comes together quite soulfully and “I Got You” actually works better still having some funky ragged edges to it. Though “Schizophrenia” gets a strong response, it still sounds strange and gimmicky in this format, but maybe it is just something you need to hear live.

Y@H may not break any truly new cinematic ground, but so be it. (For an even better thematically related film, check out Heather Lyn MacDonald’s Been Rich All My Life, the story of the eighty-something Silver Belles dancers.) The Young@Hearters all seem like good people, so it is nice to see them get their due, even if Walker sounds like a jerk most of the time. It airs next Tuesday (1/12) in most markets (9:00 PM EST on New York’s Thirteen).