Going into the screening for Young@Heart, I knew I was doomed. I have a soft spot for stories about elderly folks, so I knew it would make me cry. Coldplay songs also make me cry ("Fix You"? Come on!). And oddly enough, standing ovations and enthusiastic applause sometimes make me cry. The Young@Heart documentary has all of this — and more. It had my number from the start, and I went through many tissues. But I also smiled a lot, and felt the joy that radiates off these inspiring people, leaping through the screen and into the hearts of the audience. Young at heart, indeed.
The movie opens on an auditorium full of people wildly cheering, standing, beaming (Buzz's Weepy Face, Take One). Soon we discover that they're at a kind of rock concert, and we hear the first wail of "Should I Stay or Should I Go" by the Clash. But it's not a group of stringy haired punk kids onstage — it's a collection of earnest, wrinkled faces and heads with gray-white hair. It's the Young@Heart senior citizen choir of Northampton, Massachusetts. And that's just the first few minutes, so read more.
Under the tough-love leadership of choir director Bob Cilman, this group of older folks gets together a couple times a week to learn songs that — as we find out in the one-on-one interviews with the members — aren't necessarily enjoyable music to these people. But for the most part, the choir members like learning new things and get a kick out of performing these "young peoples'" tunes. Throughout the film we're treated to renditions of songs by the Ramones, David Bowie, Gloria Gaynor and — to the dismay of my tear ducts — Coldplay.
In between songs (and music videos!) we grow attached to certain members through personal interviews, as they all work toward learning a whole new lineup for a big upcoming concert. The new songs present their own challenges and some of the members begin to suffer greatly from health problems, but they doggedly attend rehearsals and study the words of the songs because Young@Heart is that much fun. And because audiences are counting on them.
Honestly, this stuff writes itself. The subject matter naturally taps into some of our most basic fears: that growing old means winding down and maybe being forgotten, neglected or unheard. Here, as a powerful contradiction, old folks are given voices — actually, big screamy punk rock voices — and far from tuning them out, people pay money to hear them. It's a most hopeful and exciting take on the issue of growing old in America.
Photos courtesy of Fox Searchlight