“Young@Heart” is a documentary with an irresistible premise: rock ‘n’ roll songs performed live on stage by senior citizens. I first heard this group many years ago when they were profiled on the radio program “Fresh Air.” The image that has remained with me is the group member who tried to parse the lyrics to The Talking Heads’ “Once in a Lifetime” – it was a sublime comic moment. As the subject for a documentary, this concept is foolproof.
Which is a good thing. I worried throughout the movie that the director would find a way to undermine the genius of the idea, which is: that in singing the music of youth, senior citizens can uncover many of the truths and joys and ironies in the music that might not otherwise be apparent. The camerawork is inelegant even for a documentary, and many shots seem to be framed to exaggerate the “ridiculous factor” inherent in the material. The director’s voice-over narration also lends the feeling that this is just a standard human-interest segment that was filmed for the evening news. (The narration disappears during the final twenty minutes, giving an idea of how much better the film could have been without it.)
There are several (too many) music-video-style interludes in the movie, which are full songs lip-synched by the group, complete with professional editing and all of the standard music video stagings and conventions. I was distracted by these and also conflicted – if the group produced them separately from the film, then they probably had a place in the documentary. On the other hand, if the filmmakers produced them for this piece, then they had overstepped their bounds as documentarians. The film doesn’t make clear which is the case, but in some ways they cheapen the proceedings.
Quibbles aside, “Young@Heart” ultimately delivers what the title promises – the idea that music is life, plain and simple. When the group brings back two former members who left because of health reasons to sing Coldplay’s “Fix You,” the juxtaposition of the song with the situation is so perfect that I found tears rolling down my face. The feeling is universal – when the song is performed again near the end of the movie, the audience has the same reaction. When the group’s director Bob Cilman tells the lead singer “You can do nothing wrong with this song,” he’s absolutely right.
One of the better decisions of the filmmakers is to keep the focus entirely on the group members’ participation in the group, as they are in rehearsal, travelling to and from rehearsals and gigs, when they prepare backstage and especially when they perform onstage. Even those who fall ill are shown rehearsing in their sickbeds. We need to see the process come to fruition – hard work and frustration transformed to joy in front of an audience. Thankfully, “Young@Heart” does not disappoint: the concert sequences are wonderful.
In one scene, the group performs Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” at a prison. They dedicate it to the memory of a group member who had died just that morning, and the camera cuts between inmates wiping their eyes and the musicians performing the song; one wonders if Dylan hadn’t envisioned exactly such a moment when he wrote the song. There are other segments that provoke the same reaction, that this chorus is uniquely suited to capturing the essence of these pieces and can thereby perform definitive versions as a result. As one group member says, “It’s all cake,” and the frosting comes when the prison inmates give the group a standing ovation, literally embracing them following the performance.
Mortality is an obvious concern in a film about a group whose average age is 82, but this also underscores the idea that every performance is something precious, a gift to the participants as well as to the audience. It’s something we often overlook about music – that every time we experience it, a gift can be had. As group members fall ill and experience the travails of aging throughout the film, we become keenly aware of this, and the efforts of the group to persevere and continue despite the almost constant worries about personnel make the singers seem almost heroic. This troupe experiences more death than perhaps any other performing group in history, which gives the adage “the show must go on” added poignancy. One woman says, “If I collapse during a show, just drag my body off stage and finish the show.” As opposed to lending a morbidity to the proceedings, this attitude is liberating. Many rock songs mock death to a certain extent, masking the underlying fear that youth in general has about growing old and eventually dying. When these seniors perform the same music, we realize there’s nothing to be afraid of except not seizing the moments while they are here.