Sunday, November 1, 2009

Young @ Heart: The (2007) Movie

Stumbled into “Young @ Heart”, a documentary about a New England choral group performing punk, rock, and R&B covers; the hook is that the members are well over 70 (high of 92).

Sounds like an opportunity for terminal cuteness … “oh those feisty seniors … isn’t it amazing that they can sort of sing at all at their age? … it’s so inspiring!”.  That’s exactly the sense you get from the trailer which is delivered with the typical phone-it-in Fox Searchlight style. Exactly the kind of movie I avoid.

But this one caught me completely by surprise and I’m still roiling with emotions a day later. I’m trying to figure out why.

It should have been utter treacle like one of those sentimental movies about animals, or kids, or illness, or the mentally infirm. Instead it’s a rich character study in which each member of the cast takes you somewhere you’re likely to go … somewhere you want to go … if you’re lucky enough to live that well.

Singing is the glue and reason enough to watch. The songs - well-known pop tunes of youthful love, rage, despair, and hope – confess new moods and meanings as sung by performers far from adolescence.  The juxtapositions can be simple fun as in the raucous “I Want to be Sedated”, given literal treatment by a cast for whom the wheelchair is a serious threat. Or it can rip you open as when Bob Knittle’s rich baritone pleads “I will try to fix you” to the barely perceptible beat of his oxygen machine, counting down toward the inevitable. It would be contrived if it didn’t actually happen, inadvertently, before a packed house of loving fans.

The heart of the movie is the interviews and the lives of the cast as they orbit the rehearsal hall. The authenticity is striking. At a jail house concert the camera lingers on the prisoners’ faces each surrendering a thought of present loss or worrisome future. They are not being entertained (although they think they are); they are transported to the company of someone they miss, of someone they may become.

Death is a looming presence. Close as he is, the cast are no more ready for him than we are.

It’s not great filmmaking. It’s great human material triumphing over the pedestrian. It’s people being themselves, striving for meaning and community, just a few feet ahead of us down the road we travel together.


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