Spiting death and stayin' alive -- 3 stars

Directed by Stephen Walker. April 2008, UK. Rated PG: 107 min.

(Originally published in buzz magazine on 5/12/2009)

There are only so many nights a retiree can knit quilts, watch the Game Show Network, and play bingo before they get fed up with the same everyday routines. At least, that’s the case for the members of the Young@Heart chorus in this charming documentary.

Even though most of them confess to preferring classical and opera music over rock ’n roll – which is not too surprising, considering how most of them were already middle-aged when The Beatles and The Rolling Stones hit it big on our side of the pond in the early 1960s – something about 53-year-old director Bob Cilman and his bottomless drive to tour and perform keeps them coming to rehearsals. Documentarist Stephen Walker reports the average age of the chorus members to be 80. Yet when their eyes light up while singing in their practice room, concert halls, and even the occasional low-security prison, they exude the sheer glee of 7-year-olds unwrapping Christmas presents. With heartfelt pride and gusto, they belt out selections from a wide variety of subgenres and bands that span from the birth of rock to the present. From Bee Gees to James Brown, from The Clash to Sonic Youth, and from Talking Heads to Coldplay, nothing is off-limits to them.

Of course, it isn’t easy teaching these slightly senile folks new songs every few months. Morale dipped to subpar levels on many occasions. Memorization became a major issue for Lenny, and it was a pleasant surprise when he didn’t mess up the rhythm or the lyrics of “I Feel Good” in concert. It took weeks of solid practice of the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can” for everyone to wrap their minds around the exact order of all 71 occurrences of the word “can” in the song. Few people liked Sonic Youth’s dissonant sound at the outset.

But the sudden deaths of two key members, Bob and Joe, within a month before a big show, taxed Young@Heart ten times more than any struggle to learn the music. Yet a “never say die” attitude prevailed, and the group pulled together to honor the deceased with a 100% raw emotion tearjerker-of-a-show.

Although their singing isn’t beautiful in the traditional sense of pristine vocal harmony, it hits a nerve that reminds us of the poignance and fragility of human life. They’re aged, wrinkled, and imperfect, but they’re sure as hell not lying down, waiting for death. Their character, vitality, and will to persist despite adversity illustrate the concept of carpe diem in action.

My only problem with the movie is that Walker doesn’t give us a strong sense of the group’s history. When exactly did Cilman start the group, and how does he go about recruiting members? What are his plans for the future of Young@Heart? These important questions go largely unanswered.