Young @ Heart (United Kingdom, 2007)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

When I think of the musical associations of men and women in their golden years, the names that come to mind are Benny Goodman, Frank Sinatra, and maybe Herb Alpert or Neil Sedaka. I wouldn't connect a white-haired old lady with Sonic Youth, Coldplay, and the Talking Heads. Yet that's where Young @ Heart takes its audience - into the behind-the-scenes stories, rehearsals, and performances of a New England chorus that takes its rock 'n roll, punk, and blues seriously, even though the youngest performer is 72. Young @ Heart, a labor of love for British documentarian Stephen Walker, doesn't tackle any big issues or ask any life-changing questions. It's a simple chronicle of admirable people that's part humor, part sentimentality, and part inspiration. If the characters populating this movie don't get you, the music probably will.

The Young at Heart group is comprised of 24 members in their 70s and 80s. They are led by 50-something Bob Cilman, their conductor and musical director - a man of seemingly limitless energy and patience. Time constraints prevent Walker from getting up close and personal with every member of the chorus, so he picks his subjects carefully, taking aim at the most intriguing stories. We meet the likes of Eileen Hall, the sprightly eldest singer; Steve Martin (no, not that Steve Martin), a guy who refuses to let his age get in his way; Fred Knittle, who is strapped to an oxygen tank; Bob Salvini, who is trying to make a comeback after recovering from a serious illness; and Joe Benoit, who has undergone enough chemotherapy to have killed almost anyone else.

Young @ Heart documents the rehearsal period leading up to a live performance where the group will delight with unique renditions Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia", James Brown's "I Feel Good", Cold Play's "Fix You", and Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can." Lost in the mix is "Life in Wartime" because one of the two singers designated to interpret it dies before the concert. In fact, two singers who are present at the beginning of the film are no longer there at the end. This adds a touch of pathos to the proceedings, but Walker doesn't go overboard. (He does not, for example, subject the audience to the funerals.)

The film is about 50% music and 50% documentary footage. There are four music videos featuring the oldsters, including David Bowie's "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive." While it's fascinating to watch the behind-the-scenes workings of how a show evolves from the ground up, I might have preferred a few more live songs and a few less samples of "I Feel Good" being messed up. From a purely cinematic point-of-view, this isn't the best made documentary, but budgetary constraints probably play a large role in the limitations of shot selection and the choppiness of some of the editing.

Walker's primary goal in making this film was to follow the group over the seven week period during which he was provided with unfettered access. He stumbles unwittingly into some emotionally potent drama and does his best to gather sufficient coverage for it to seem more like an integral part of the story than a footnote. He is mostly successful, although one can envision that had he known certain events were going to take place, he would have framed things differently. But that's what happens when a documentary filmmaker finds his cameras capturing things he hadn't anticipated.

My reservation about Young @ Heart is the same one I have for most documentaries: its inherent theatricality, or lack thereof. One could generate a plausible argument that this film might play better on a small screen than a large one. Certainly, it won't lose anything if reduced to 31". Like all movies shot on video, there are times when it doesn't look so good in the 35 mm format. However, whether you see it in a theater or on TV, Young @ Heart is likely to bring a smile to your lips and a bounce to your step.

Young @ Heart (United Kingdom, 2007)

Director: Stephen Walker
Cast: Bob Cilman, Eileen Hall, Steve Martin, Fred Knittle, Joe Benoit, Bob Salvini
U.S. Distributor: Fox Searchlight
Run Time: 1:47
U.S. Release Date: 2008-04-11
MPAA Rating: "PG" (Nothing Objectionable)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 1.85:1