Like newspaper columnists, film documentarians are always on the look- out for a great story. The difference is, they have to begin filming the story before they know how it’s going to end, or even whether it’s going to turn out to be a story worth telling. But a gifted documentarian can sense a story as it begins to develop, and knows where to take the cameras so they will be in just the right place, with just the right focus, at just the right time. Such is the case with Stephen Walker, a British documentarian who smelled a good story in “Young @ Heart.”
Walker was astonished by the sell- out concert of a singing group composed of senior citizens whose average age is 81. Their shtick? They sing rock, punk, and heavy metal songs. The film about them is much more than a “making of” concert documentary; the story itself is pure gold.
Bob Cilman is the enthusiastic, upbeat, no-longer-young-himself musical director whose gray hair betrays the 25 years he has been directing the Chorus. He demands professionalism from his singers as he puts them through the paces of learning such difficult songs as “Schizophrenia,” James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” and “Yes I Can” (try getting your head around a lyric that simply says, “Yes I can, yes I can can, oh yes I can” about 93 times with various rhythms and various numbers of “cans”). One of the reasons it works is that Cilman directs the concert on stage and performs along with the singers, helping them stay on time with the often intricate rhythms.
Of course, this is a documentary about old people, and old people have health problems. Sometimes serious ones. And sometimes they die. If Cilman keeps this in mind as he selects his soloists and rehearses their numbers, he doesn’t let it show. It must be a great and dreadful occupation, producing a concert so full of life when death is always lurking around the corner. But despite the performers’ age and health problems, Cilman expects them to be on time for rehearsals and to sing with gusto. “I don’t want to lose my solo,” one member explains seriously when he comes to rehearsal just a day after being hospitalized.
These people do not particularly enjoy the songs they perform. They often wrinkle their noses and roll their eyes at some of the material Cilman selects. Their own musical backgrounds range from opera to church choirs to dance bands; they like songs with lovely melodies and harmonies and lyrics. But they have learned an important principle of the free market: supply does not create its own demand; demand creates its own supply. Nobody wants to hear a bunch of old people singing old songs. But they love hearing these old people singing contemporary songs in a new way, as evidenced by the sellout crowds wherever they go.
The popularity of their concerts does not result simply from the anomaly of watching old folks sing punk rock. Young @ Heart brings a fresh interpretation to songs that are familiar to their audiences, but not to them- selves. Because it’s harder for them to memorize at this stage of life, they have to think more about the sense of what they are singing, and that deeper understanding of the lyrics comes through in their performances. Moreover, because of their classically trained technique, they enunciate better; the audience understands the lyrics of familiar songs, perhaps for the first time. Their different stage of life can also bring an entirely different meaning from the one intended by the composer. For example, Sting’s song “Every Breath You Take (111 Be Watching You)” tells a whole new story when it is sung gently by a chorus of nurses to an old man hooked up to an IV.
The magic of the movie is in the singing itself, and in the real life stories of the singers. Walker takes his film crew into their homes, their cars, even their bathrooms, pulling together scenes that are heartwarming, funny, and wise. The film would have been tedious if it were just constructed as a behind-the-scenes concert documentary. Instead, Walker turns several of the songs into staged music videos with the chorus members strutting their stuff in a bowling alley while they sing “Stayin’ Alive” or end- ing up in a field surrounding a tour bus while singing “Road to Nowhere.” The music videos are just plain fun, and you can see how much fun the members had being part of the filming.
One of the most poignant scenes in the movie occurs when Cilman decides to present a concert for inmates at the local jail. These men are spend- ing what should have been “the best years of their lives” incarcerated. You can see it in their faces as they hear the lyrics to Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” They may be old when they get out. But as they watch the enthusiastic chorus, older still but full of life and sing- ing with joy and animation, it seems to give them renewed hope that they, too, can be forever young. Several of the inmates unashamedly wipe away tears as they sit in the sunshine, listening to the concert.
The song that will stay with you the longest is Coldplay’s “Fix You.” From early rehearsals to final performance, the lyrics and the performers tell a poignant story of dreams deferred, friendships lost, and memories dimmed in a way that Chris Martin and his young mates, talented though they are, simply can’t achieve: The gentle chorus reinforces the power of friendship and hope, even as life draws ever closer to its end.