Judge Clark Douglas is young at heart, but old at kneecap.
Rock n' Roll Will Never Die!
Initially, I approached the suspiciously-titled documentary Young@Heart with a considerable dose of skepticism. I had seen the trailer a few times, and it looked to be the sort of thing designed to appeal to all the people out there who love buying those calendars featuring nuns doing lots of silly things. "A bunch of really old people singing rock songs that occasionally feature bad words? Ho-ho, what a jolly old time at the movies!" Fortunately, the film quickly won me over, and I'm pleased to report that Young@Heart is about more than the cuteness of watching old folks from rest homes singing punk rock. It's about a group of elderly individuals choosing to become a part of something exciting and alive rather than merely sitting around waiting for the end to come.
Young@Heart was founded in the 1980s by Bob Cilman, who stills runs the group today. He's considerably younger than all of the singers (he's 53 in the film, while the youngest singer is 72), but he has a passionate commitment to keeping the group going strong. Cilman is a compassionate and good man, but he's not interested in overdosing the old folks with flattery. He's tough and firm in rehearsal sessions, getting frustrated with people when they can't get the lyrics to a song, and doing everything necessary to make sure they get it right. It's a tough love approach that all the members of Young@Heart seem to respect a great deal. One lady is asked if she thinks Bob is too tough. She simply shrugs and replies, "If he shouts at me, I just shout right back."
Director Stephen Walker focuses on a few key individuals as the group goes through the rehearsal process and prepares for a tour. The oldest member of the group is Eileen, who is surprisingly one of the most vivid characters. With a rugged English rock star drawl, she spits out her lyrics with a lively fire that immediately catches you off guard. Also quite energetic is Joe, who has undergone an endless amount of chemotherapy in recent years. Remarkably, he keeps recovering, and rarely misses a show. Steve Martin (not the one you're thinking of) suffers from challenging health problems, but keeps coming back for more. The band also recruits a couple of retired members to rejoin them on the tour. Bob Salvini is an Italian man with a lovely singing voice who is now too frail to keep going. However, he has agreed to come back and sing a duet with the other returning veteran, Fred Knittle. Fred is a remarkably boisterous fellow with the deepest voice of the pack.
Throughout the rehearsal process, Cilman and the singers figure out which songs they're going to perform. Some of them are pretty familiar to everyone involved, such as "Staying Alive" and "I Feel Good." However, Cilman wants to push the group outside the comfortable, handing them songs from the likes of Sonic Youth, Coldplay, Radiohead, and The Ramones. Most of this stuff isn't quite appealing to the personal tastes of the singers. When asked what sort of music they like to listen to, the most common replies are classical music, opera, and vintage movie musical soundtracks such as My Fair Lady and The Sound of Music. However, everyone embraces the challenge of tackling something new and different, and they all seem to love the reaction they get from their awestruck crowds.
What begins as a pretty straightforward documentary about the group quickly takes a turn into somber and moving territory, as two key members suddenly pass away. Walker doesn't spend too much time trying to exploit the emotions of this situation, but there are nonetheless some very moving scenes. The members of the group refuse to let the death of their friends dampen their enthusiasm. They all respond the same way: "We keep going, but we know that's what they would have wanted us to do. That's what all of us would want the group to do if we passed away suddenly."
The highlights of the film are the musical moments. While they may not be the most technically impressive performances of all time (some of the singers are off-key, and the band's Cajun-flavored arrangements occasionally seem a bit odd), they're performed with so much passion and genuine heart. Two sequences in the film really stood out for me. The first comes when the group performs at a prison, giving great cheer to a group of young men who seem both moved and delighted by the concert. The second is when Fred Knittles performs Coldplay's "Fix You," delivering lyrics that we're used to hearing from the high-pitched Chris Martin and applying his rumbling Johnny Cash voice to them. The result is intensely moving stuff.
I can't really comment on the transfer or sound here, as I was supplied with a screener disc from Fox that offers inferior quality on both. Here's hoping the official release looks and sounds solid, but I honestly can't provide you with any info based on what I was given. Extras are pretty limited here. There's a 5-minute featurette, 10 deleted scenes (the highlight of which is a cut performance of "Purple Haze"), and a trailer.
Young@Heart is quite a refreshing documentary. These days, the word
"documentary" has become too synonymous with stories of tragedy in
foreign countries or political exposes. While those certainly are an important
part of the genre, I'd also think there's plenty of room for more down-to-earth
docs like Young@Heart. It's hard to imagine anyone not being entertained
or moved by what is being presented here. Not guilty.
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