If you are looking for a perfect antidote to the endless stream of violent films where you can, to paraphrase Edna St. Vincent Millay, “count the many ways in which I can kill you,” then you are in luck as Young@Heart, starring the Young@Heart Chorus, is a gentle, loving documentary that will keep a smile on your face from the opening shot to the very last frame, with a tear or two shed along the way.
Filmmakers Sally George and Stephen Walker moved inside the lives of the members of this unique chorus of singing seniors, ranging in age from mid-60s to mid-80s, and for seven weeks filmed the group as they prepared for a performance in their hometown of Northhampton, Massachusetts.
The chorus, comprised of people from all walks of life, specializes in reinterpreting rock, punk, and R&B classics, imprinting them with their own special sound. Guided by their longtime demanding but kind director Bob Cilman, the group struggles through Sonic Youth’s dissonant rock anthem “Schizophrenia” while Dora B. (Parker) Morrow gives new meaning to James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” as she practices her yelp at the beginning of the song. The chorus struggles to learn new lyrics and unfamiliar melodies of seven new songs, except for 83-year-old Joe Benoit who can memorize an entire song in an afternoon. After six rounds of chemotherapy, he defied his doctor’s orders and went on an earlier European tour with the chorus.
Meeting three times a week, little by little the singers become comfortable with such classics as Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can” (which was particularly hard to learn because of all the can cans) to Coldplay’s emotionally powerful ballad “Fix You.” Somewhere in the middle, the film takes a sad turn when two of its members die, deepening the significance of some of the lyrics.
The day of the performance finally arrives, the house is packed, and the Young@Heart Chorus, after two months of intense, sometimes emotional, rehearsals is more than ready. And, perform they do. The repertoire includes 92-year-old war bride Eileen Hall’s rousing rendition of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” and Pat Linderme’s moving interpretation of Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U.”
An emotional version of “Fix You” is sung from a wheelchair by 81-year-old Fred Knittle who, suffering from congestive heart failure, has been unable to travel with the group, but returned for this performance. The song was supposed to be sung as a duet with his good friend Bob Salvinia who was one of the chorus members who passed away a week before the show.
Some of the other songs performed include The Ramones “I Wanna Be Sedated,” “Yankee Doodle Dandy,” “(Ghost) Riders in the Sky,” Sting’s “Every Breath You Take,” “Aba Daba Honeymoon,” “Shout,” David Bowie’s “Golden Years,” and Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” The entire show is a celebration of life as well as a fond farewell to the friends who are no longer with the group.
Directed and narrated by Stephen Walker with the most tender of touches, Young@Heart is a monument to the joys of singing and performing, and a strong reminder that no matter how old you are in body, the spirit can remain forever young.
Young@Heart opens on April 9 at the Landmark Theatre at Westside Pavilion and the ArcLight in Hollywood.