Monday, December 01, 2008

Young at Heart review

It starts off with a 93-year old woman singing a rendition of Should I Stay or Should I Go? She recalls to the narrator that it was originally by a band called Crash. And with that, we know we are in for something out-of-the-ordinary with Young At Heart.

The documentary follows a choir of very old, very infirm men and women as they prepare for a European tour. From the aforementioned opening scene, one might think this film is going to poke fun at the older generation, to mock them. Ha ha, look at the silly old codgers. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Young At Heart does indeed begin laughing with (and maybe a little bit at) the ragbag gang of crusties as they get together in a rehearsal hall once a week to try and get their heads around new songs suggested by their younger leader, Bob Cilman. We meet Len, who always gets stuck on the same two lines of I Feel Good, we meet Joe, with milk bottle glasses and a winning smile, we meet flirty Eileen who, like all of her peers, can’t get her head around Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia. Before we know it, we are entirely invested in these creaking, hunched folk on the screen. They are no longer just people who can’t get their musical timing right, they are people we really care about. And so the story really begins.

In a bid to give the seemingly directionless group a boost, Cilman – part megalomaniac, part care-assistant – re-introduces two former vocalists. They struggle to shuffle their frail frames into the rehearsal hall. Bob Salvini can barely walk due to crippling spine pain, and Fred has to carry a portable oxygen tank from which pipes lead into his nose. The returning duo is greeted with hugs of love and affection by the rest of the group. Old friends reunited. The tears well up in the cinema’s audience at this point. They continue to flow throughout, through a performance in a jailhouse, through the death of more than one band member, to the big show at the film’s finale.

That’s not to say this film is over-sentimental. Not by any means. No-one in the band wants your sympathy. They just want to get on with working out how the hell to get their tongues around Yes We Can Can. These people prove themselves to be go-getters to put you and me to shame. Cilman too, while a hard task-master, proves himself to be a kind man. He is not exploiting these people; he is helping them find a new lease of life.

The documentary is a fairly straightforward affair, there are no real aesthetic frills – there don’t need to be, as the old-timers’ personalities light up the screen well enough on their own. The soundtrack is wonderful though, with existing and well-known songs given a whole new dimension. Coldplay’s Fix You is a good tune, but when sung on a stage by an elderly man barely alive, in tribute to his intended duet partner who died that very week, it becomes a whole different song altogether. Moist-eyed, yet bursting with dignity and pride, the singer makes the words his own. It is one of the most affecting things you will ever see. If you fail to cry at this moment in the context of the previous 90 minutes, you are simply not human.

Very few films are life-changing, but Young at Heart can make that claim. It makes you want to make the very most of every little moment that life has to offer. The protagonists of this wonderful story may be shackled by decrepit old bodies, but their hearts are indeed as young as yours or mine.

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