In the world of documentary filmmaking, it’s rare to come across a story containing more than mere topical analysis tinged with one or more of the following: hip music, activism, wacky narratives, gratuitously artistic shots, dry humor and cool graphics (like star wipes). Absorbing human drama tends to be more elusive and reserved for works of fiction, while the reality captured within the nonfiction genre’s actuality, continuity and imagery is often void of grand emotions. Stephen Walker, director of Young@Heart, is either very talented or very lucky. His film manages to cross a threshold, capturing to the fullest potential a tragicomic slice-of-life story about usual people doing unusual things.
With a repertoire of covers borrowed from the likes of The Ramones, Talking Heads, Jimi Hendrix, James Brown, David Bowie, the Bee Gees, OutKast and others, it’s strange that a chorus comprised of senior citizens could ever be mustered to sing them. Initially, the prospect of a film about geriatric renditions of rock songs seems like a case of irony-based amusement made for and by apathetic gawkers. Within its first quarter, with no explanation as to why the elderly subjects would be involved in such an weird project, the film could be viewed as a futile and slightly exploitative exercise in absurdity. Quickly, though, the subjects--The Young@Heart Chorus, which began in 1982 and is based out of Northampton, Mass.--become characters in one of the all-time most fascinating depictions of old age.
Early on, Young@Heart cuts away to a music video where we see the timeworn chorus starring in their own bizarre and surprising rendition of The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated.” In a series of interviews, we learn the chorus’ participation is clearly not based in a desire to rock. Rather, the group’s tastes tend toward opera, show tunes and classical music. This is the WWII generation, and they show their age with an adversity to sonic abrasiveness and a conventional unfamiliarity with modern electronics. However, later on, in another video where the seniors get tattoos, drink beer, ride motorcycles and generally carouse, the whole scenario begins to come off like a glorious up-yours to Old Man Time and an affront to the confines of our ageist society.
Amidst all of this, we learn just why octogenarians are challenging themselves to learn songs like Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” Explanations include the assertion that singing is good for you, the participation aids in forgetting creaky bones, horizons are expanded, nice people are met, the brain is exercised, opportunities to travel present themselves and the elders enjoy basking in the feeling of being on stage. As select individuals from the 20-plus member group are introduced, a quote from the chorus’ homepage--“It is possible to grow old without growing boring”--seems like more of a truth, rather than mere hope.
But, as the film’s most colorful character puts it, “You don’t get out of this world alive, that’s for sure.” Despite every chorus member’s youthfulness, reality eventually rears its direly sick head, and the fleeting state of existence is faced. Deeply sad emotions are bared intermittently, yet life continues to be celebrated.
Between its hilarity, novelty and utter sadness, Young@Heart is an uncommonly introspective film and a profound inquiry into the meaning of age and mortality. While many documentaries examine culture and the plight of humanity, none have managed quite as well to juxtapose the two. Accessible and broadly appealing, only the punkest of Scrooges will fail to see the grace in this filmic portrait of grandmas and grandpas who’ve still got it.