Can rock music and colostomy bags mix? (Insert your own hilarious “Shine a Light” joke here.) The subject of Stephen Walker‘s new documentary is Farmingham, Massachusetts’ “Young @ Heart” chorus, a 24-member group with several international tours under its belt. The singers’ median age, we’re informed, is 80.
Since 1982 the choir has been directed by one Bob Cilman, who undertakes the Sisyphean task of trying to transmit songs to an audience via the leaky vessels of geriatric minds, many of whose active enjoyment of contemporary pop largely ended at USO dancehalls and Lawrence Welk. During a nine-week rehearsal process to prepare the group’s new revue, Cilman introduces his assisted-living singers to a new program of tunes by the likes of James Brown, Sonic Youth, and Alain Toussaint. The show’s title, “Alive and Well,” becomes increasingly ironic as the rehearsals move along and health problems intervene–viscerally emotional plot devices that Walker gladly hooks onto.
What’s good about the film comes through in spite of the filmmaking, the tone of which is frequently slimily ingratiating. For comic relief, an 86-year-old designated carpool pilot’s driving is soundtracked by some keyboard-preset cornpone banjo chase music. The “vigor” of the choristers is emphasized by labored behind-the-camera flirtation with a bewhiskered 92-year-old senior member. One soloist is given an at-home interview, seemingly kept in for the lone purpose of letting the camera lavish attention on a “Still a Sexy Beast” novelty figurine in his den. And, to stimulate “indefatigable spark,” the film periodically breaks for risible music videos of the choir doing “Stayin’ Alive” (including obviously bemused teenage dancers) and “I Wanna Be Sedated” (“I can’t control my fingers/ I can’t control my toes”), which skirt the grotesque.
Though it overplays the “feisty oldsters” angle and Spencer’s Gifts–level ribaldry, the movie can’t entirely smother its subject’s inherent questions about how we relate to pop music. It’s basically a question of shifting context — as in listening to the 1977 Langley Schools Music Project recordings, in which Beach Boys and Bowie covers are invested with new level of meaning when eerily harmonized by kids in the Vancouver suburbs. Perhaps more pertinent to this is the palpable fading in the Johnny Cash recordings with Rick Rubin (“You can hear him dying,” I remember one enthusiast saying of the last record). As one of the choir’s octogenarians tackles his solo on Coldplay‘s “Fix You,” you can’t dodge being moved in seeing the opaque generalities of Chris Martin‘s wishy-washy lyrics (“When you lose someone you can’t replace”) slotted into the specific losses recorded within.
Also persuasive is a visit by the choir to a low-security prison. The handling of the concert is crude — lyric cues prompt cutaways to inmates with appropriately somber and affected expressions — but the overall effect can’t be diluted. There was a time, I was recently reminded, when “the prison circuit” was a regular stop-off for gigging musicians, even real name acts. That basic humanity has evacuated a pop scene that, phony eclectics aside, limits itself to selling kids to other kids — and so this awkward commiseration of society’s unwanted is touchingly expansive.
[Nick Pinkerton is a Reverse Shot staff writer, a contributor to Stop Smiling, and a regular critic for the Village Voice.]