May 13, 2008

REVIEW: Young @ Heart (A+)

Background: It seems like well over a year ago that I first saw a trailer for Young @ Heart, the new documentary by British director Stephen Walker. It didn't immediately grab me (in fact I was little put off by laughing at the elderly), but some early buzz caught my ear before Young @ Heart thrilled moviegoers at the recent 2008 Minneapolis/St. Paul International Film Festival, receiving the highest viewer rating out of over 150 films. If this is all you know about it or you've only seen the annoying trailer, maybe hold off here until you actually see the film. I don't have major spoilers in here this time, but (as always, but especially here) I think it's in your best interest to go into this one as blind as possible.

Synopsis : In Northhampton, MA, we meet the Young @ Heart chorus: 24 men and women (with an average age of 80 years old) who perform stirring renditions of pop/rock/punk classics around the world. The film follows the group as they prepare for a new show in just seven weeks, which will be held at their "home" venue, the Academy Theater, as a kick-off to their next tour. As the group members learn the music, we learn about them - their families, their marriages, their health problems, their hobbies, and, in at least one case, their sex lives. Interspersed between interviews and rehearsal footage are staged music videos of the group singing some of their classics. The chorus is directed by Bob Cilman, a 50-odd year-old guy who astonishingly founded Young @ Heart when he was in his 20's. Bob is a bit of a nervous wreck as the gig date nears and the group continues to struggle with the music, but despite his occasionally harsh attitude with several soloists, it's clear he truly cares about them and loves what he's been doing for so long. By the time the curtain goes up for the big show, you can't help but marvel at how far this group has come in such a short period.

I Loved:
+ "Stayin' Alive"
+ The group's rousing performance at the Academy Theater.
+ The unbelievable resilience demonstrated by so many members of Young @ Heart.

I Liked:
+ The performance at the prison.
+ The other music videos, especially "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Road to Nowhere."

I Disliked:
- The occasional feeling that Bob Cilman was being a total jerk during rehearsals. Tough love, though - how can you criticize that guy?

I Hated:
- The headache I had upon leaving the theater, likely the result of dehydration from crying so much.

Writing - N/A
Acting - N/A
Production - 10
Emotional Impact - 10
Music - 5
Significance - 5

Total: 30/30 = 100% = A+

Last Word (expanded): "It's got a lot of life. That's what we have. A lot of life," says Young @ Heart member Steve Martin as the group learns Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can." With those simple words, Martin perfectly captures the soul of Young @ Heart, an instant Oscar favorite and the first film that I've bestowed with an "A+" in this space. The fact is, this intensely moving documentary is simultaneously the most devastatingly tragic and the most life-affirming, uplifting film of the year. I'm hesitant to say it's for everyone, but if you can't squeeze a tear out during this film, donate your body to science. Granted, I'm already a moderate crier at the movies, and the right music during a scene will put me over the edge. As such, when two group members crooned Coldplay's "Fix You," it was a surreal experience as the tears literally were "streaming down my face"; I was a sniveling, sobbing mess, not just then but for at least half of the film's running time.

Does this make Young @ Heart a great film? Of course not. What makes it a great film - arguably a perfect documentary - is that it's as honest as its own material. Stephen Walker doesn't manipulate us, and, more importantly, he doesn't manipulate his subjects (I won't accuse Bob Cilman of that, either).
They don't shy away from exposing their broken bodies, and Walker doesn't shy away from showing us the difficulties of life in its ninth decade. But the film's subjects are beyond all of this, hence the name of the group. They shrug off the possibilities of their own deaths and laugh at minor inconveniences - like kidney stones and blood transfusions. Indeed, the octogenarian members of Young @ Heart are, impossibly, wise beyond their years.

At some point in here I need to admit that I've been a singer throughout my life, in some form or another. Not a big deal, but for me personally, that fact fully illuminated so much of the power of Young @ Heart. For starters,
singing in a group is very different than doing so many other things in a group. A perfect harmony forms some kind of unique, primitive bond that can't be achieved through any other human interaction. Choral music is universal to almost every culture on Earth, and even beyond that, you only have to look at various animal species that communicate in song; mates are found and territories are marked. The close personal connections of the members of Young @ Heart are, in my opinion, primarily a result of the time they've spent making music together.

Aside from the healthy relationships on display, another important aspect of the Young @ Heart chorus is the raw power of the music. It was easy to tap into the joy the group members experienced while singing on a stage in front of a packed theater, which really is a lot of fun after you get past the first few lines. Making music, even just vocally, can be such an incredible rush. If you've ever played the video game Rock Band you can probably relate, or even if you've messed around with GarageBand on a Macintosh or, like Walter Vale in The Visitor, just banged on a drum to release yourself, to cope, to heal. The members of Young @ Heart live to sing, but perhaps more literally, they sing to live.

That all of this is captured on film so well is an incredible achievement on the part of director Stephen Walker.
I didn't grow up with grandparents, so my exposure to this world is somewhat limited, but I don't know that I've ever seen life at 80-something portrayed with such humor, grace, respect, and insight. By the final performance, I felt like I was cheering on my close friends. Maybe it was because it was an empty theater on a late weeknight, but I was plugged in - completely in - like I haven't been in a long time. I wanted to cry, clap, sing, stomp my feet, and, after it was all over, splash my face with cold water.Young @ Heart isn't going to change your life, but it should at least make you appreciate it. No wonder the group members are wearing sunglasses in the poster - they've made the future look a lot brighter for all of us.


  1. What a well written review!

    It seems as though nearly everyone who matters has seen this film now and you all enjoyed it.

    Can't wait.

  2. This was a lovely, stirring review for what is (at this point in the year) easily one of the best films of 2008.

    Some of the best reviews that any of us will ever write happen when we lose the natural tendency to close ourselves off. It doesn't take great courage to feel something deeply. That's an experience that everyone can relate to but it happens instinctively. But only an exceptional person can translate that emotion into words and be utterly straightforward about what he/she experienced - and that takes guts.

    The fact that this film moved you to that degree does not surprise me at all. But you were very open about that - and I think that pushes the quality of your evaluation to a whole new level.

    I also didn't know how important music was to you. (Strongly suspect doesn't enter into anything relevant.) Y@H teaches some very important lessons in the course of two hours. Good to see that you understood them all. You cut right to the chase. Anyone can read your article and comprehend why this movie is deeply meaningful and important without being pretentious.

    Bravo, Danny. Sheer bloody excellence. You hit it right out of the park.

  3. Cheers to you both. It kind of got away from me, but I didn't fight it. It's been over a week since I saw it so I had to try to to capture my initial reactions.

    It will touch different people in different ways, Nick, but I was swallowed whole.

    Wow, thanks, Miranda. I was well aware while I was watching it that something special was happening, so instead of trying to explain it away I just thought I would explore it further. I think you do the same with your reviews at Cinematic Passions.

    I'm sure there are people who didn't shed a tear while watching this (and that would be fine), but I would be surprised to hear from someone who didn't have some kind of emotional reaction, even if it was just a goofy smile. Apparently this is one of the only films that received a standing ovation at Sundance last year.

    The power of music was a major part of it for me, but so were the visuals, which I didn't really mention above. I mean, I don't think I would get much from just listening to a Young @ Heart CD. Maybe some laughs, yeah, like what you get from the trailer. But combine the stories and the faces with that music and you get a completely different picture.

    Hopeful the Academy (or somebody) will "get the picture" at year's end. I expect to see some great docs this year (and I already have - Up the Yangtze, American Teen, Encounters at the End of the World, Blindsight - but Y@H is just on another level. It's the type of film that so deserves to be joyfully celebrated.

  4. First off, I'm jazzed you loved the movie and second, it's great that you were able to channel it into a great review.

    I didn't know you were a singer, so it's especially nice to hear your prespective on this movie.

    I wish more people were checking this one out. I know Miranda wrote a lovely review of it and a couple of others I know have seen it, but I guess it's kind of a hard sell.

    I have to admit, when it played at LAFF last year, I skipped it thinking it sounded kind of sketchy, but then it turned out to be the most buzzed movie at teh fetival. If it hadn't, I don't know if I would've seen it when it finally came out.

    I'm glad I did.

    Anyway. I blab. Nice review, sir.

  5. Thanks, Craig. Blab away anytime...

    The reviews from both you and Miranda certainly shed positive light on it as well. I haven't dared to check out what the critical consensus is, but I'm sure there are a few critics who found it manipulative or shallow.

    Had I been in your place at LAFF (which I think is where it actually premiered?) I probably would have skipped it as well. Good thing the buzz has carried it through for so long.

  6. Great film, Daniel, and an incredible review! Heartfelt and open-minded. I was also overwhelmed with emotion upon seeing this film. The showing I saw at the Mpls Film Fest garnered much applause and clapping/singing along during the viewing, which was fun for me to witness from the last row (sold out show, glad I got a seat at all).

    I support Miranda's statement too about the courage need to write about something you feel deeply - well said.

    I can also personally relate to the rush of singing that you described, which is different and distinct to me from performing a song. They both have their pros and cons, but there is indeed something sublimely wonderful and primal about the joy of singing. And being able to do it in a group of cohorts makes it all the more meaningful.

    Excellent line (yours) ".. but perhaps more literally, they sing to live." I like to think of it as not that singing kept the choir alive, or staved off the painful conditions the members encountered at their age, but that it helped them to truly express themselves more fully -- and I think the surprise is as much on them as the audience that these types of eclectic songs can be a fitting conduit for them.

    One unexpected observation I had, and I hope it’s not some sort of cliché (or something weird about me), was that these people were simply and utterly beautiful, in a physical sense. Kind of strange I know, but in this day and age, and in the midst of this culture of often-destructive youth obsession (which I am a guilty party of as much as anyone), I was transfixed throughout by the beauty of their faces, unique personalities, and treasures of life experiences. I really loved watching them.

  7. I loved this film - I think the performance of "Forever Young" at the prison in memory of their recently passed friend is the most moving thing I've seen in a film all year.

    But I really didn't like the director. I found his presence and narration grating, and often the questions bordered on idiotic. But when he stepped back and let the band members tell their own story then the film really soared. I haven't cried so much in any other film this year.

  8. I'm a little cooler about it than others. I felt like there was a layer of insight about mortality that was sitting there but never really explored.

    That said, it was clearly an enjoyable experience and a positive movie.

  9. Wow, this is really getting some good stuff out of everyone. That's why I enjoy doing this.

    Thanks, Josh. Yes, I think the group really did surprise themselves, and that only added to the joy of the last performance. I didn't really think about their physical beauty, but I definitely understand what you're saying.

    Great, Matthew. Kind of nice to know the waterworks were flowing at full tilt for other people, too. Yes, the director's accent was a bit jarring when it introduced some scenes, but I generally admired the way he handled the interviews more as conversations - not propping them up in front of a light, just talking to them and filming: in the car, while shaving, on a bed, etc. In any case, he was definitely second fiddle to the people on screen, and fortunately it didn't fully obstruct your view.

    Very interesting, KB, and thanks for offering a more tempered insight. I understand what you're getting at but I think it may have ended up steering Y@H off course to some extent, or at least made it a lot more depressing. For me, the discussions of death were appropriate and sufficient. Maybe I somehow found that "exploration" in the lyrics they were singing?

  10. Excellent work here, Daniel. You managed to capture your enthusiasm and emotion extremely well, which is often difficult to do.

    I admit, the trailer looked cute but not something I would necessarily go out of my way to see. But after your review (and Phillip's over at MZ) as well as the buzz that has built behind it, I probably need to go for sure now.

  11. Thanks, Evan. Philip's review captures it well, and if you can surrender yourself surrender to its charm, you won't regret it.

  12. I am really excited to see this film.

  13. Let me add my congratulations on an excellent, heartfelt review.

    I haven't had the opportunity to see this yet - the trailers looked cute enough, but I wouldn't have expected this depth.

    Like you, I have spent many years singing in choral groups, and if this film can communicate the joy and power of singing with a group of people then I know I will love it.

  14. I hope it makes its way to you, k. The momentum is pretty strong right now.

    Thanks a lot, Pat, and yes, "depth" is great word to not describe the trailer. Based on your choir experience, I have no doubt this will impress you.

    Anybody, feel free to come back to this after you do see it and share your thoughts. I'd love to see if continues to reach people in different ways.

  15. OK, I was feeling lazy, but now I have to get my butt down to Edina.

  16. Nayana, with this grade I've basically put myself in a position to guarantee that you'll like it. And I do. Run, quickly!

  17. You have some influence.

    I went tonight. Took the bus to Edina. Eeeshk.

    I love that you cried. I was embarrassed by unexpected sobs, which snuck up on me at least three times during the movie.

  18. Wow, I'm honored you took me at my word!...And I'm surprised to hear that they allow "the bus" to stop along the pristine streets of Edina. >-P

    Public transportation is great.

    Anyway, I didn't expect to be wiping my face every few minutes either, but there it was. As we continued to get to know the characters, how could you not get emotionally invested?


Related Posts with Thumbnails