Young @ Heart begins with a vast crowd on their feet, cheering a performance we haven't seen. The crowd is exultant, young, excited; the performers are a group of senior citizens called the Young at Heart Chorus. Their repertoire is varied; their average age is 80. Over the past several years they've toured internationally, acclaimed for their renditions of modern pop and rock songs, all under the guidance of their musical director Bob Cillman.
Directed by Stephen Walker, Young @ Heart follows the chorus through the rehearsals and gigs leading up to the chorus's new big show -- which they have just seven weeks to prepare for. And at once, Young@Heart takes all the standard-issue concerns of the touring band documentary -- creative differences, struggles with the material, preparation and publicity -- and reframes them all in a very different context. The members of Young at Heart aren't looking to become stars or even make a living with their music -- so why exactly are they doing it? And, more bluntly, are the crowds that come out to their shows and tours -- as they cover material from The Clash and Coldplay and Outkast and more -- laughing with the chorus, or at them?
Eileen Hall, a 92-year old veteran of the troupe notes how in the chorus's early days, "We used to sing songs like ""Yes, We Have No Bananas." ..." Now, the massed members listen intently as Cilman pitches them a new number, Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia." This is not music made for the senior set; as the raging, jet-engine guitar solo peels off to the stratosphere, you can see the trepidation on the faces of the group. Or when Bob presents Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" as a possible number, the lyrics -- a seemingly endless repetition of "Yes we can, can" with a syncopated, shuffling beat -- seem to daze and confuse the chorus as they listen along. (Walker really doesn't dig too deep into the quandary at the heart of the chorus's song selections -- are Cilman's song choices for the chorus expressive and inventive, or tyrannical and perverse?) But later, as the big show draws near, and Bob's thinking about pulling "Yes We Can Can" from the new show, a member of the chorus steps up and says that no, they can handle the song and they like the number, and that it's Cilman's job to push them: "You can't scrap it; we'll throw you out if you scrap it." And as the band prepares for the show, we see music video-style filmed segments of some of their greatest hits -- "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Road to Nowhere," "Golden Years" -- demonstrating that the chorus indeed has chops, and bring real life to songs that, in many ways, seem a little elderly in and of themselves.
Some will object to the invention and artifice of the music video interludes, but they're hardly the biggest area of contention in Young @ Heart. Director Stephen Walker may have had the idea to make a film about the chorus, and he may have had the timing to follow the chorus at what turns out to be a challenging moment in their career, but Walker lacks the judgment or taste to let the story he's filming speak for itself; scene after scene is marred and marked by the most leaden narration imaginable. "Next on Bob's list is James Brown, and it's a whole different story." "Steve Martin is an ex-Marine whose zest for life is nearly mind-blowing." Walker's narration soon becomes the equivalent of that guy who leans over to you during a heat wave and insistently, constantly murmurs "Man, it's hot ... isn't it hot?"
Fortunately, the songs and stories of the chorus are strong enough to push the film over Walker's narration; we meet Fred Knittle, a heavyset baritone with a big personality who doesn't tour with the group anymore -- he notes how "We went continent to continent until I became incontinent ..." with the jovial rhythms of a man who tells the same jokes a lot -- but his rippling, husky voice is strong; in fact, as Fred struggles with congestive heart failure, it's stronger than he is. Fred's on oxygen, but he's also in tune. Eileen Hall survived the Blitz; now, she sings The Clash. And the songs themselves are well-arranged, and while some of the chorus are singers and some are shouters, they put their all into each number. At one point, the chorus plays a gig at a local jail -- a time honored concert tradition from Johnny Cash to Metallica -- and their versions of Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" and Dylan's "Forever Young" feel lived-in and heartfelt -- especially "Forever Young," for reasons I won't elaborate on here. And, answering the question of laughing at or laughing with, while the crowd of prisoners is a little amused by the seniors at first, by the close of the performance they're truly, sincerely moved by the power and the passion and the music they've witnessed.
Much like the legendary Langley Schools Music Project album -- a collection of '70s pop songs performed by a group of grade schoolers in British Columbia as part of an accidentally avant-garde music class that became a cult artifact of outsider music -- the Young at Heart chorus takes songs we know so well they've become background noise to us and rediscovers their essential elements -- or, at the very least, renders them so strange they regain the power to shock us -- and makes them very, very different. And Hillman is a talented arranger and taskmaster; the band's version of "Road to Nowhere" nicely mixes in parts of the call-and-response chorus of "Shout"; it's a mash-up that works, and a credit to the arranger and performers.
And as you'd expect, the passage of time weighs over the Young at Heart chorus and the film. (Bob asks a member of the chorus about her near-death experience: "Jean, did you see the white light everyone talks about?" She laughs, waves the question off: "No, I refused to look.") But every member of the group is eager and willing to take part in the big show even after tragedy strikes, frail and fragile and fierce in song. And not every number in the film-ending hometown show is a success; "I Feel Good" is a joyous, exuberant trainwreck of missed beats and dropped lyrics. In the final number we witness -- a number that was supposed to be a duet, but became a solo, a song meant as a show-closer that is now offered as a memorial -- Fred Knittle performs Coldplay's "Fix You."
His low, strong voice finds sorrow and hope in the words; the band keeps time, and all the while the mechanical tick and hiss of his oxygen pump works in a different tempo, and counts a different kind of time. And that moment makes the whole film worth it, a brief brilliant piece of pure plain-spoken poetry -- the inevitability of death stuck in a moment of pure life, the wonder of life found so close to the presence of death. Showbiz lore tells us "The show must go on"; the passage of time tells us that we do not. Young @ Heart doesn't have an answer to that contradiction, but even for all its flaws and failures it still succeeds in showing us friends who -- through song and art and community and, yes, love -- are doing their best to face it with everything that they've got.