If you saw the Rolling Stones’ concert film Shine a Light and were impressed by the energy of those sexagenarian band members, you should check out another concert film released this week that’s about an even older – and, in some ways, even cooler – group of musicians.
Young@Heart takes its title from the name of a world-touring vocal ensemble based in Northampton, Mass., made up of about 30 senior citizens whose average age is 80. The hook is that the group’s musical director, 53-year-old Bob Cilman (whose aging-hippie façade hides a conductor who demands ruthless musical discipline from his charges) has them sing contemporary songs, and while some of his selections are easily digestible pop, others push toward rock’s weirder edges.
Early on we see him introduce the members to their next song by playing them the recording of Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” The oldsters greet the noise-punk song with dazed incomprehension, and more than a few stick their fingers in their ears. Yet they have the song down pretty well by the time the movie is over, after following them through 17 weeks of rehearsal leading up to a May 2006 concert in their hometown.
The director is Stephen Walker, an Englishman with a background in reality TV who almost bungles this. He uses way too much voiceover narration (which he reads himself), breaking in at the most intrusive times. His cinematic style is flat, indicating that he doesn’t have an original take on his subjects. By contrast, the movie shows us several of Young@Heart’s music videos, which have a deadpan sense of humor missing from the rest of the film, especially the one where the group sings the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” Walker’s questions can be cringe-inducingly stupid (“So, no mistakes today?”), and sometimes he just doesn’t know when to back off: When the group plays a gig at a prison and dedicates their performance of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” to a chorus member who died that morning, it’d be powerful enough if the camera stayed on them. We don’t need the cutaway shots of weeping prisoners to bring the point home.
The thing about documentaries, though, is that a great subject can bail out the filmmaker. Sometimes all a director has to do is bear witness when something extraordinary happens. For instance, the cameras roll at a rehearsal when Joe Benoit, an 83-year-old World War II veteran who retains his military-erect posture, spookily seems to channel David Byrne in his spot-on delivery of “Life During Wartime.” A movie like this depends heavily on its on-screen personalities, and this movie boasts a ton of likable and interesting seniors, like 92-year-old Eileen Hall, who flirts delicately with the all-male camera crew, and 80-year-old Fred Knittel, a man with a marvelous sense of humor (“I traveled with them from continent to continent, ’til I became incontinent.”) who sits at home with breathing tubes up his nose and yet still delivers a firm-voiced rendition of “Ghost Riders in the Sky.” When Fred pays tribute to two recently deceased fellow singers at a concert by singing Coldplay’s “Fix You,” it breaks down any shred of resistance you might still have to the movie. Moments like that are why, for all the flaws in its execution, Young@Heart’s story packs a unique inspirational power.
Directed and narrated by Stephen Walker. Rated PG.