Friday, February 27, 2009

Young @ Heart: the sweetest movie I've seen in a long time

It is possible to age gracefully.
It is possible to grow old without growing boring.
You'll laugh at how adorable these people are. You'll cry at how full of life they are. Please add Young @ Heart to your netflix queue.  I feel like calling my Grandmother and telling her how much I love her.

Founded in 1982, The Young @ Heart Chorus is a group of elderly folks (average age of 81) who have toured the world singing rock'n'roll songs from Sonic Youth to Jimi Hendrix. The film follows chorus members and director Bob Cilman through rehearsals, performances, illnesses and deaths.  One of the performances is at a Massachusetts prison and the other is at a sold out theater as final send off before traveling to Europe.

Yes, yes; we know the movie is celebration of life, music and spirit. These people have the most amazing energy and love of singing.  But I am moved by the originality of musical interpretation and how when these folks sing, you know they really, really, really mean it.

It's amazing how well-written songs can take on completely different meanings depending on who's singing them and how they are being sung.  When you hear a 80-year-old full of aching bones and muscles sing James Brown's  "I Feel Good," it takes on a brand new meaning. What about when a 83-year-old in a nursing home wheel chair sings the Ramone's "I Wanna Be Sedated"?  (This is a video you cannot miss, there are no words to describe it.) Here you'll get a certain perspective, wisdom and humor that missing from the original. This is not a bad-boy punk song anymore, but an old man who needs his pills!

Watch this video of "Fix You" by Coldplay.  This is Fred Knittle.  He passed away in early January 2009, but in the film, he's been asked to return to the chorus after a prolonged illness.  This song was supposed to be a duet, but his partner Bob Salvini died several weeks before.  Forget how much you hate Coldplay and leave your expectations at the door. In a voice reminiscent of Johnny Cash, Knittle sings of friendship, life, death, redemption, and brings me to tears in a way Chris Martin can't.  It's gorgeous.

These are some of the most unique cover songs I have ever heard.   Many of the vocals are rough and off-key, the blend is mostly non-existent, but the vocal phrasing is exquisite and the arrangements are terrific. The soloists make up their own melodies and rhythm and sing from life experience and age. These people don't have a personal history with the songs (born in the 20s and 30s, they are too old to identify the songs with their youth) but can identify with the words. Cilman has chosen each song carefully (You'll never listen to "I Will Survive" the same again).

One thing thing that Cilman says at the beginning of the film is that "you can always understand the words when this group sings them." As some of you might know, making the words understandable is one of the hardest things to do with a choir. Getting clear diction is very difficult.

The film doesn't really address how the songs change meaning because of who is singing them. Mortality, of course, comes up in many different ways like when the chorus members express their desire to continue singing after the death of Joe Benoit, a fellow chiorister. 

It's like working in an elderly home, death is a common visitor to this group and they keep on singing in celebration of life.  And as the founder of this group, Cilman never comments on how it affects him personally, he just keeps trying to get these fabulous people to learn and remember their words.  I'm so grateful for people like him who make it their business to bring joy to the elderly, it's incredible. (Shout out to Music Therapist Froman!)

As one of the audience members says after seeing a performance of the Young @ Heart Choir, "I'm never going to complain about being too old or too tired again!" 

Here's the trailer:

Here's the official film website and chorus website. And an interview with Cilman. 

Please, do yourself a favor and watch this movie. It's terrific.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for such a wonderful review. My Dad sang Fix You, and we've had an amazing month since his passing. It is comments such as yours that warm our hearts. They always say be careful what you put on the internet. Well, what you've written really made my day.

tsano said...

oh jamie, it was such a good review. I loved the film!!! and I'm glad how the director (conductor) did not do a sentimental twist, and let the facts speak for itself. there is no question that his life has changed. but he made this about the performers.

Jamie: said...

Omigosh! The Knittle Family! Thank you for so much for finding my blog and commenting! Your father was one amazing guy. I hope someone read his self-written eulogy at his funeral. Peace be with you and long live Fred Knittle!

Anonymous said...

This is amazing. Can't we all go and listen to him concertize? He must be playing somewhere. Let's hope it is somewhere in California.

The older generation video gives me great hope. The people are having so much fun and they are being so well received. Yeay!! More hope for us olders.

Your mom