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.
+ "Stayin' Alive"
+ The group's rousing performance at the Academy Theater.
+ The unbelievable resilience demonstrated by so many members of Young @ Heart.
+ The performance at the prison.
+ The other music videos, especially "I Wanna Be Sedated" and "Road to Nowhere."
- The occasional feeling that Bob Cilman was being a total jerk during rehearsals. Tough love, though - how can you criticize that guy?
- 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.