Sunday, June 8, 2008

"Young at Heart " a Cool World to Visit

The Rolling Stones, as it turns out, are not the only senior citizens singing rock 'n' roll. Another, rather unexpected group is singing lyrics that are more cutting edge and performing on-screen antics that are considerably more amusing. You won't believe the world of "Young@Heart," but you'll have a hard time resisting it.Not unlike our own "Raging Grannies" they take new songs and put their own spin on them.

Since its beginnings as a collective arts project in 1982 at a center for the elderly in Northampton, Mass., The Young@Heart Chorus, a 24-member singing group who have developed into a popular local ensemble with an international reputation. It has made 12 tours of Australia, Europe and Canada and serenaded Norwegian royalty. We get an intimate sideline view of the mechanics and comradeship involved with such performance groups.

Accompanying the singers is a solid core of professional rock musicians who help ground their sometimes wavering voices. But, under the firm-but-fair direction of Bob Cilman, who's led the group for 25 years, these troupers slowly but surely rise to the occasion, delighted to have a purpose in life and as willing to have fun in the process as people one-quarter their age. Guided by the chorus’s demanding longtime director, Bob Cilman, the members are learning new material, including “Yes We Can Can,” the Allen Toussaint hit for the Pointer Sisters, whose lyrics repeat “can” 71 times in intricate, staccato patterns;enigmatic, equally demanding “Schizophrenia”; and the Coldplay ballad “Fix You. Of course, when you're of a certain age, learning rock lyrics is not always easy, and we look on as the group members scrutinize words with huge magnifying glasses and hold their ears as they listen to the loud originals.

Directed by Stephen Walker, a British TV documentary maker, narrates the film himself, and his overly chipper voice-over initially borders on being intrusive. But when the chorus starts to sing, when, for instance, animated 92-year-old former war bride Eileen Hall rips into the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," none of that matters. Just as eye-popping are the videos (ala Vintage MTV style) for songs like David Bowie's "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive", “I Wanna Be Sedated ”by the Ramones and "Road to Nowhere" by Talking Heads that veteran independent cinematographer Eddie Marritz shoots with a gleeful energy. The movie concentrates on the rigorous two-month preparations for a 2006 concert at the Academy Theater in Northampton.

The serious moments are equally balanced with comical levity like the wry flirtations of Eileen Hall with the British Film Crew. With an organization whose members are this old, the question of mortality is bound to come up, and that turns out to be one of the shocks as well as one of the graces of "Young@- Heart." Late during the making of “Young@Heart” two members of the chorus, Bob Salvini and Joe Benoit, died within a week. Although neither death was a complete surprise, occurring so close together, they come as shock to a group dedicated to living in the present as fully and exuberantly as possible. When the chorus sings Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" to an audience at Hampshire Jail at a particularly emotional moment, many of the inmates are literally moved to tears. (I know I was!)

One of the choir's most touching personalities is Fred Knittle, a big man with a deep, Johnny Cash-type voice. He had retired from the chorus and returns to visit his comrades, now with an oxygen tank after suffering congestive heart failure. Knittle speaks eloquently about the travails of old age, and his rendition of Coldplay's "Fix You" near the end of the film is a moment you won't forget.

What we learn is that the age of these singers is not some glib contrivance but the heart of the matter. In a culture that venerates youth and considers aging the worst of all fates, to see these men and women having the time of their lives near the end of their lives couldn't be more refreshing. We want these wonderfully alive people to go on singing forever, most of all, perhaps, because we know there's no way they can.

Personally, being employed by Humboldt Senior Resource Center, I have direct contact with the lives of many productive Senior Citizens, some of whom have formed singing groups. I can hear them practicing down in the recreation room which is next door to the kitchen where I work. I applaud them every chance I can. Occasionally, at HSRC, we lose one of our older friends, and their absence is truly felt. We rarely get to really know people while busy taking care of tasks, consequently, never fully appreciating their achievements and personalities. I am happy to say that this film gave a greater appreciation of our elders and the noble work activity directors do to keep such beautiful humans on this planet. We walk through this world and all we can see is that life is a song we sing all day long.