Picture a 90-year-old woman belting out James Brown’s "I Feel Good.” What’s your reaction? "Oh how cute!” "No way!” "You go girl/guy!” Maybe all of the above. When I saw the trailer for the new documentary, "Young At Heart,” that tells the story of a choral group for seniors (average age of 81), I worried that it would be ageist, condescending, and play it for laughs. However, as a Baby Boomer who recently joined the Foster City Community Chorus, I just had to see this film. Fortunately, my fears were allayed — they did it perfectly.
The Young At Heart Chorus has been singing for 25 in Northampton, Mass., has toured internationally, and received standing ovations for their performances of rock, punk and disco music. Documentary film maker Stephen Walker saw their performance in London and was compelled to tell their story. He followed them through an intensive period of six weeks of rehearsals for their hometown concert. During that period of time they rehearsed such diverse numbers as "Schizophrenia” and "Yes We Can,” "Should I Go, or Should I Stay,” as well as James Brown’s "I Feel Good.”
These pieces aren’t easy to learn or to perform and director, Bob Cilman treats the chorus members not as old people who need coddling, but as the fine musical performers they are — with dignity and respect. He has high standards and they live up to his expectations, even faced the realities of the death of two of their members during the pre-concert period. Cilman strikes just the right balance between compassion and respect, and it is totally clear that he loves his choral members and his work.
During this nearly two-hour documentary, we get to know a number of the members of the group. We hear their stories, including their histories, their love of music, their health issues and about their families. We come to really care about them, so it is very poignant when two of the most vibrant and stalwart members of the group die. However, we also feel uplifted by the fact that they were living life to the fullest right up until the end, and through that we are gratified and inspired.
Besides the main performance, they go to the local jail and perform for the inmates. That sequence in the film is particularly fascinating as we watch the reactions of the prisoners and the connection that they make with the music and the performers. It, too, is inspirational, and teaches us about the ability of music to heal and to connect people and even generations.
Would this have been such a compelling story if this group were singing "Up a Lazy River,” or "Daisy, Daisy?” I don’t think so. It was particularly interesting to watch these people open up to new kinds of music and to respond to the words of the songs. At the risk of sounding trite — the music helps to keep them, well — young at heart!
I loved this film, but caution the viewer to look at it with new eyes, and not to focus on the age of the performers and/or some of their apparent infirmities, but rather to look into their souls and their spirits. If you do that, you won’t be disappointed — you’ll be uplifted, your heart will be warmed, and you’ll be inspired to enjoy life up until the very last breath you take!
Eve Visconti is a writer and longtime movie buff who lives in Foster City.