This review was originally published April 18th, 2008.
The British-produced documentary Young@Heart opens by subjecting the audience to a most unexpected event: a 92-year-old British woman crooning The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Behind her, to a packed audience, stand 20 more geriatrics stomping and dancing like they’re having the time of their lives. They are the Young@Heart chorus, and spending 107 minutes with them could prove to be one of the most joyful experiences you’ll ever have.
The Young@Heart chorus has been based out Northampton, Massachusetts since 1982 when it was started by Bob Cilman who originally had the choir perform classic vaudeville numbers, but now leads them in a most eclectic repertoire of the likes of Sonic Youth, James Brown, Coldplay, and The Clash. Once weekly, this group of old folks meet to rehearse, and for many of them, it’s a new lease on life.
In the film, Bob Cilman says that since starting the choir he feels like he has acquired thirty new grandparents. The members of the choir are a cast of characters too original for any writer to make up. There’s Eileen Hall who started out her career in the choir by doing a “striptease” and is now the only resident of her nursing home to have a key to the facility because she always gets in late from concert gigs. Over the years, Fred Knittle has been one of the choir’s greatest assets and says he traveled with the choir “from continent to continent until I became incontinent.” Because of congestive heart failure, he had to take a hiatus, but makes a smashing return in the movie with Coldplay’s “Fix You.”
Young@Heart is one of the most entertaining documentaries to be released in a while. At almost two hours long, it never lags once as the filmmakers follow the choir through all kinds of situations, remaining objective through all of them – whether it be getting new music or facing the death of a choir member. Some of the biggest laughs are provided by stylized music videos featuring members of the choir in the most outlandish scenarios. Because of this, Young@Heart is at times uproariously funny; a crowd-pleaser of a film if there ever was one. But on a deeper level, it is a testament to the power music has to transcend the boundary of age.
When asked about why he’s in the choir, one member says very honestly, “It makes me forget all about the creaky bones.” Seeing the chorus perform Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” is indeed an odd experience, but watching them sing Coldplay’s “Fix You” allows a rare opportunity for a popular song to be separated from the original artist and be reinterpreted in a most meaningful way by completely different age group. It proves that art is a testament to the human experience and that the joys and problems of the human condition rarely vary with age.
“You don’t get out of this world alive”, Fred Knittle says. How true it is … and how encouraging to see a group of old folks making good use of that time while it lasts. Bravo!