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“Young at Heart”

Running 1 hour 48 minutes, “Young at Heart” relies on observational footage, interviews with participants, some narration by Walker, and the inclusion of several stylized “music videos” that Walker shot of the chorus in rock-opera fashion—like the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” sung by chorus members feigning disablement.

“Young at Heart” had a limited theatrical run earlier this year. It’s still appearing on the film festival circuit and opening in overseas markets, but now it’s available from Fox Searchlight Pictures on DVD, too. That’s good news because this documentary is a gem.

British filmmaker Stephen Walker followed about 24 members of a senior citizens chorus called Young@Heart for almost two months as they prepared for a show in their hometown of Northampton, Mass. Under the direction of the demanding Bob Cilman, their repertoire is rockin’: Jimi Hendrix, Coldplay, the Beatles, Bruce Springsteen, James Brown, the Rolling Stones and so forth.

The documentary opens with a rendition of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by chorus member Eileen Hall, who’s 92. You get what the chorus and the film are about immediately. We see them rehearsing, going about their daily routines, checking on each other’s health—and that’s part of what makes “Young at Heart” so emotionally investing, for in addition to the normal rigors of musical rehearsals and show preparations, these chorus members regularly deal with health issues, illness and, inevitably, the death of their own.

Running 1 hour 48 minutes, “Young at Heart” relies on observational footage, interviews with participants, some narration by Walker, and the inclusion of several stylized “music videos” that Walker shot of the chorus in rock-opera fashion—like the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated,” sung by chorus members feigning disablement.

Don’t be fooled: Just because the chorus members can groove to hard or classic rock, that doesn’t mean a good Julie Andrews number wouldn’t be their preference. But Cilman is all about pushing the envelope, and the members, to their credit, are willing to be pushed.

For the upcoming show, Cilman wants the chorus to perform “I Feel Good” by James Brown. On lead he puts 76-year-old Stan Goldman, who suffers from a painful back ailment, and Dora Morrow, an 83-year-old great-great grandmother. “This is going to be excellent,” says Cilman of their initial rehearsal, “but it may not be until the year 2009.”

He also puts an R&B tune called “Yes We Can Can” into the program. It confounds almost everyone because of its innumerable mentions of the title phrase, but Joe Benoit, known for his dependable memory, gets it. “Singing does a lot for your whole body,” says Joe, one of the movie’s stars.

Cilman, 53 during filming, has been running the chorus since 1982, and he doesn’t wear kid gloves while working—though he does give the members lyrics in an enormous font size. Some of his reaction shots are priceless—not just the ones of his frustration, but especially the ones in which he holds the beauty of the moment.

Cilman gives musical direction, but also health updates on absent members. He makes phone calls to check up on people. He also decides to bring back two chorus members, Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, to sing Coldplay’s “Fix You.” Knittle and Salvini had to leave the chorus several years earlier due to health problems, but Cilman wants them back for an encore. Their rehearsals and the ultimate performance of “Fix You” constitute some of the more emotionally resonant moments in this or any documentary of the last year.

Cilman and company take their show, titled “Alive and Well,” out for a dry run at a local correctional facility. Their standing ovation is tempered by bad news, but they carry on, as always.

Young@Heart’s climactic hometown performance takes up the documentary’s last 20 minutes, and you’ll find that old lyrics get new meanings, old bones get new moves, and wrinkles have never seemed fresher, sweeter, lovelier.

Cliff Vaughn is managing editor of EthicsDaily.com.

MPAA Rating: PG for some mild language and thematic elements.
Reviewer’s Note: The DVD contains a featurette, “Young@Heart Goes to Hollywood,” as well as 10 deleted scenes (including more music videos and interviews with chorus members).
Director: Stephen Walker
Cast: Bob Cilman; The Young@Heart Chorus.