This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon: Chuck Berry turned 81 last fall, so perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that a couple of dozen singers whose average age is 80 have earned international acclaim singing rock and roll. Indeed, many people associate rock music predominantly with youth. That's a mistake you certainly wouldn’t make after seeing a rousing new celebration of life called “Young@Heart,” which opens with a 92-year-old woman declaiming with an appropriate British monotone the chorus to the Clash’s punk classic, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”
The Young@Heart Chorus is based at a center for the elderly in Northampton, Mass., but the group has toured Europe and Australia as well as the United States and Canada. For a documentary film on the chorus, director Stephen Walker and producer Sally George spent a couple of months with them as they were preparing for a new concert, rehearsing demanding songs like James Brown’s funk-driven “I Feel Good,” Allen Toussaint’s tongue-twisting “Yes We Can Can,” and Sonic Youth’s dissonant “Schizophrenia.” These are people who, when asked about their favorite kinds of music, tend to mention opera or show tunes. But they like performing rock music because, they say, it “expands” them.
The filmmakers build the story skillfully. In the first half of the documentary, as the rehearsals progress, or fail to progress, it is difficult not to wonder how these people are ever going to perform in front of a live audience without embarrassing themselves. Then we get a glimpse of what they are capable of.
Mid-picture, the chorus appears at a county prison before an audience of young male inmates and performs “Forever Young,” a song Bob Dylan wrote for his son at the beginning of the boy’s life that takes on new meaning when sung by people near the end of theirs. When the haunting performance is over, the prisoners leap to their feet in applause and cheers. It is a stirring moment.
One key to the success of the singing group, and the film, is chorus director Bob Cilman, an ebullient man in his 50s who obviously loves his job and the people he works with. He is demanding but kind, couching his criticisms in humor as he pushes the members of the group to perform at a level they – and we – sometimes doubt they can achieve. It turns out they can perform something close to miracles.
One of the climactic moments of the film comes when a man in his 80s walks on stage, draped in breathing tubes and carrying his oxygen supply with him, sits down and absolutely nails Coldplay’s “Fix You,” a touching ballad of comfort and compassion.
On the whole, the group rolls better than it rocks, and is at its best when performing softer, more sentimental material, songs that are suitable for a chorus. But the singers also, with the help of a small combo of professional rock musicians, can get the crowd clapping and dancing in their seats with upbeat material like “I Feel Good,” its rhythmic runs set off by wordless screams of energetic delight. I said earlier that it probably was a mistake to associate rock music with youth, but that was wrong. You may not have to be young to rock and roll, but rock music might well help you feel young.
There are two dangers to a film like this. One is that the young filmmakers might treat the elderly singers with condescension. There are some suggestions of this tendency in the beginning, but the extraordinarily enthusiastic spirit of the singers soon prevails. The other is that the film could sink into a morass of sentimentality. But the filmmakers do not shrink from the realities of life for people in their final years. Illness and disability are ever-present and dealt with frankly, and before the film is ended, two singers whom we have come to know and admire, are dead. Both had key roles in the upcoming concert, but the show goes on.
“Young@Heart” opens Friday.
Also opening this week
Nowhere, it would seem, is the war between men and women fought more fiercely than in France, where love and death, at least in films and fiction, are sometimes treated as nothing more than two sides of the same unlucky coin. In “The Duchess of Langeais,” a beautifully filmed, ill-tempered French melodrama that opens Friday, a moody hero of the Napoleonic wars (Guillaume Depardieu) is romantically taunted and toyed with by a wealthy Parisian temptress (Jeanne Balibar) until he can’t stand it anymore. Then, he takes his turn at playing hard to get, and finally she can’t stand it, either. Bad things come to pass, as you would expect from a film whose original title, “Ne Touchez Pas la Hache,” translates as “Don’t Touch the Axe.”
The acting is superb, as is much of the dialogue. The film is, at times, wickedly entertaining, but New Wave director Jacques Rivette appears intent on passing along every detail of the Balzac novella the film is based on, and watching these two people torture one another for two hours and 10 minutes eventually becomes somewhat tedious. Incidentally, we keep hearing that the duchess has a husband, but if there was any explanation of where the Duke of Langeais was while his wife and a famous general spent months driving each other to the point of distraction in the middle of Paris, I missed it.