2007 // UK // Stephen Walker and Sally George // May 19, 2008 // Theatrical Print
B - If someone had summarized the premise of Young@Heart to me a few weeks ago, it would have raised my condescension hackles to critical levels. "This is a documentary film about a community chorus that performs rock, pop, R&B, and soul songs. Oh, and all the performers are over 70 years old. Funny, huh?" Fortunately, Young@Heart is not the terrible documentary it should have been. In fact, I'll go further than merely admitting and retracting my suspicions, however well-founded. Young@Heart is a damn good film. There's nothing especially artful to it, and it probably would have worked just as well on cable television as on the big screen. Yet it pulls off a tricky storytelling feat: It treats a subject matter strewn with perils in exactly the right way, juggling an array of reflective themes about age, death, art, performance, pop culture, and human worth. It's a triumph of the first principles of documentary film-making: take an interesting topic, construct a narrative, keep things moving, and make it sing.
The Young@Heart Chorus is comprised of Northampton, Massachusetts retirees who have made it to their eighth decade (and beyond). The Chorus' "babe in the woods" is its middle-aged musical director, Bob Cilman. Over two decades ago, the Chorus started out performing Vaudeville numbers, but pop music is now its bread and butter. Cilman is utterly no-nonsense about the Chorus' legitimacy and his own standards of excellence. They rehearse relentlessly in order to master Cilman's novel arrangements of familiar (and not-so-familiar) pop songs. Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenic," Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," and Coldplay's "Fix You" are just a few of the selections rehearsed and premiered in the film. There's nothing particularly unusual about the dynamic of the Chorus other than its members' age. Cilman is the passionate, critical, and anxious taskmaster. The Chorus members are spirited and dedicated, and sometimes resentful of their director's pointed reprimands.
Substantively, that's pretty much all there is to Young@Heart. It's a portrait of a group of performers. Given that we're talking about a feature film here, however, director Stephen Walker has to find a story to hang his hat on. His approach is to follow the Chorus' preparations for its new season, from the first rehearsal where Cilman trots out the latest songs to the Chorus' season premiere in its home town. The film's overarching drama is concerned with the nuts-and-bolts of the performance. (Will Lenny and Dora master Cilman's duet arrangement of James Brown's "I Got You"?) This might sound like undemanding reality show fodder, but the film is very well-constructed, and we feel the performers' frustrations and the strain on Cilman. There are also plenty of subplots, most of them (naturally) dealing with the illnesses and passings of Chorus members. Walker mostly keeps the focus on a half-dozen or so of the performers that catch his eye, each a character with an accessible hook.
Admirably, Young@Heart manages to walk a very narrow tightrope in its portrayal of the Chorus. The subject matter is ripe for chuckling derision: "Look at these wacky old folks, pretending to be rock-n'-roll stars!" Walker stumbles occasionally, but his overall treatment is so graceful and sincere, it's easy to chalk up his missteps as expressions of an unfortunate cornball sensibility rather than mean-spiritedness. It certainly helps that all the performers are endearing people, whose hobbyist approach to music cloaks a lusty, Jagger-esque longing for the spotlight and the roar of the crowd. Revealingly, the Chorus is truly a collaborative effort, and the warm, vigorous dynamic of the group seems to hint that age can purge the egocentric taint from rock's soul.
The Chorus "music videos" that Walker slips into the film at regular intervals are a mixed bag, and mostly rely on a crude, jokey correspondence between the lyrics and the performers. On the one hand, The Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and the The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere" exhibit wry humor and clever staging. On the other, Bowie's "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" fall flat, calling to mind limp talent show numbers or the pop culture parodies that The Simpsons mined and exhausted long ago.
What makes Young@Heart compelling is not the one-joke premise, but the substantial questions about art and aging that surface as we get to know the Chorus. Indeed, Walker quickly zeros in on a crucial point: both the performers and Cilman are ruthlessly earnest and hard-working about the whole enterprise. The Chorus' un-ironic, disciplined outlook, elegantly and repeatedly conveyed, banishes any notion that their efforts amount to a lark or a novelty act. This is no joke. This is rock-n'-roll, and don't you forget it.
In its way, Young@Heart is an exceptionally nimble inquiry into two emerging realities of American life: the waxing length of the autumn years due to medical advances, and the saturation of our shared cultural experience with pop entertainment. Walker's achievement is to discover the unexpectedly dense thicket of themes where these realities overlap. To risk a cliché, Young@Heart makes you think, about life, death, and music. I wouldn't call it an illuminating film exactly, but time and again it makes you pause to ruminate on matters from the frivolous to the momentous. Does art have to be of high quality to serve a social good? Does the rebellion of rock lie in aesthetic contrarianism or the social courage that attends it? How do we find meaning in life when death is such an imminent and inescapable dimension of the human condition?
This, I think, is the success of Young @Heart. It is a film about a relentlessly adorable subject that has no need to be ambitious, yet Walker makes it ambitious with a perceptive and careful hand. In doing so, he exhibits that most enviable talent in a documentary filmmaker: the ability to uncover fertile human commentary within a simple premise.