- Jeff Derose
- The Bee Gees Stayin Alive takes on new meaning when sung by members of the Young@Heart chorus.
Kimball's Twin Peak
On paper, a movie about a senior citizens' chorus sounds scary enough to open on Halloween. But if you're brave enough to give Young@Heart a chance, you'll find Stephen Walker's film is life-affirming and, at times, profound.
The delightful documentary follows two dozen gray-haired, soulful singers from Northampton, Mass., as they prepare for a concert that's seven weeks away. Though the chorus members prefer opera and classical music, the group's gimmick has them performing contemporary pop songs, from Prince and the Clash to OutKast and Radiohead.
At the helm of this choir is music director Bob Cilman, a Bohemian-looking character whose enthusiasm knows no bounds. Having chosen the group's set list for the last 25 years, Cilman isn't afraid to challenge his chorus, knowing full well that Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" and Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" will drive everyone insane for weeks.
Sure enough, after weeks rehearsing each song one verse at a time, even Cilman loses his patience. But it's clear he's demanding because he believes in his charges. And when they're faced with adversity following the deaths of two members in the week before the big show, Cilman is more than eager to calm their fears, speaking with real affection for the dearly departed, his eyes haunted by a wisdom beyond his years.
The most endearing members of the chorus are Fred Knittle, the 81-year-old superstar singer who shows off his range in between hits from his oxygen tank, and Eileen Hall, a 93-year-old whiskered woman who jokingly comes onto the filmmakers, offering herself up like a well-aged bottle of wine. Walker also carves out a place for himself as the film's narrator, and although his stuffy British accent starts out as an annoyance, he gradually earns a place as an off-screen member of the choir.
More importantly, Walker captures the triumph of the human spirit, full of humor, grief and warmth. A case in point: when the group visits a state prison. Though it feels a bit calculated for the cameras, the humanity is inspiring so much so, in fact, that the chorus' rendition of the somewhat clichd "Forever Young" comes off as poignant.
The film shines brightest when it breaks into well-choreographed music videos directed by the film's producer, Sally George. These include the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," the Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," David Bowie's "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." And the climactic final performance is rousing; a lively take of James Brown's "I Feel Good" gets the crowd on its feet (despite the lead singer, Stan Goldman, failing to remember the two-line chorus), and the emotional highlight is Knittle's heartbreaking rendition of Coldplay's "Fix You," dedicated to his would-be duet partner Bob Salvini, who tragically passed away during filming.
Young@Heart begs the question, "Are you living, or are you alive?" and the chorus answers loudly. These mature (we don't say the "o" word) folks may be closer to natural death than most, but they are as spirited and full of life as you or I could ever hope to be. Young@Heart will make you laugh and cry, but perhaps most importantly, it will make you think twice about not inviting your grandmother to your next karaoke night.