Rather than showing the progression of youth to old age, Michael Rossato-Bennett’s debut feature "Alive Inside: A Story of Music & Memory" benefits greatly from taking the reverse path — making the old age of its subjects not a destination, but a starting point for rediscovering the past. By charting the efforts of Dan Cohen and the advances shown in those he’s helping to treat, Rossato-Bennett delivers a film that is often tonally divergent, but still provides an affecting look at a growing therapeutic cause.
Cohen, founder and executive director of Music & Memory, is the film’s entry point into the lives of several Alzheimer’s and dementia victims. He presents a simple hypothesis: Music is a largely untapped resource for assisting patients facing memory loss. Shown in practice at facilities like the Cobble Hill Health Center in Brooklyn, the combination of a pair of headphones and an iPod Shuffle soon becomes a helpful tool in rekindling the vitality of patients who are otherwise shown as lonely, angry or emotionally flat.
As we’re introduced to a handful of those illustrative case-studies, Rossato-Bennett uses a few visual flourishes to breathe some life into the clinical environment of the nursing home. While Cohen lays out the details of how and why he began his efforts, typography of key phrases from subject interviews, animations of brain activity and decades-spanning home movie footage keep the film from becoming formulaic. A handful of appearances from noted neurologist Oliver Sacks also fill in some of the scientific specifics of memory loss that Cohen, volunteers and staff members wouldn’t primarily cover in their discussions.
For all the testimony from scientists, nursing home workers and activists about the power of music to awaken those feelings and memories from the past, the film’s best moments are ones where we get to witness those transformations unfold in real time. The most potent emotional response comes from the mixture of joy, gratitude and recognition of the passage of time visible on a handful of respondents’ faces as they’re experiencing a song from their younger days. (It’s a combination reminiscent of the Merry Clayton "Gimme Shelter" studio recording scene from last year’s Oscar winner "Twenty Feet from Stardom.") These moments of musical awakening range from the tender (a couple reconnecting over the soothing sounds of Frankie Valli) to the cathartic (an emotionally volatile patient who takes solace in conducting various energetic classical compositions). When moved to sing along, a few patients even manage to carry a tune.
Even so, the film’s biggest shortcoming is its inability to trust the enormous power of its subjects. The magic that comes out of watching patients’ rediscoveries works best when shown uninterrupted. Too often, however, these moments are relegated to part of a longer montage or used merely to enforce an industry professional’s point. Rossato-Bennett’s own narration does more to repeat the ideas inherent in the music therapy sessions than reinforce them. Some of the details regarding the individual subjects are helpful in explaining their situation (their length of stay, any surviving family members or other medical conditions), but any time their examples of true musical connection are trimmed for expediency, the subjects seem to have already embodied the philosophical or practical ideas being reiterated by Rossato-Bennett, Cohen or the various caretakers.
The subtitle "Music and Memory" is a nod to Cohen’s organization, but as a declaration of the film’s two most vital thematic ideas, it also succinctly outlines where the project loses focus. One-on-one interviews with industry professionals occasionally veer into an indictment of the increasing dependence on pharmaceuticals and the organizational shortfalls in the geriatric care industry. While these detours lay out a passionate argument against what they describe as an outdated conception of treatment, they feel unnecessary given that the patients are already prime examples of the method’s effectiveness.
Whether it’s purely through the use of music or through the individual, attentive care given by some of the featured nursing home workers, the proof of positive changes presented in "Alive Inside" provide a sense of idealism amid bleak situations. When discussing the impact of music on an environment so often typified by isolation, one of the patients describes his desire for freedom. It’s a reminder that the film surrounding him is at its best when afforded the same opportunity.
A version of this review ran during the 2014 Sundance Film Festival. "Alive Inside" opens in New York this Friday.