Stephen Walker’s “Young@Heart” is documented proof that being over-the-hill is strictly a state of mind, that you can ultimately continue your life with as much youthful vigor as your mind and body will allow. For the chorus members in this documentary, that means touring and performing concerts, but not like any you’d imagine or are used to. These are 70+ year olds bringing the rock and roll, performing chorale versions of tunes by The Clash, Coldplay, the Ramones and Jimi Hendrix.
The Young@Heart Chorus is an elderly performance group based in Northampton, Massachusetts. Led by director Bob Cilman, the chorus routinely tours the world performing unique renditiions of contemporary and mainstream songs. Stephen Walker’s documentary follows the chorus as they practice new songs for the act, with the intention of performing a new show in a little over a month’s time.
Now, the novelty of this is entertaining enough, but if the documentary was solely about seeing a bunch of elderly trying to get their minds around Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” it’d get old (no pun intended) fast. While seeing the various musical moments throughout as entertaining, the true strength is the personalities showcased within.
Eileen is a 93 year old British flirt, whose soft-manner is juxtaposed perfectly with her tour-de-force performance of The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go.” Fred Knittle is an 81 year old former chorus member, strapped with an oxygen tank, who returns for one last show to perform Coldplay’s “Fix You” with close friend Bob Salvini, whose health has deteriorated rapidly. Stan and Dora are a perfect pair who just can’t seem to wrap themselves around the rhythm and lyrics of James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” at least not at the same time (Stan’s eventual “I feel nice, like sugar and rice” is a brilliant moment that had me researching whether sugar and rice would make a good combination). In fact, not a face that appears onscreen is without energy or charisma, and as the film unfolds the audience is both entertained and touched by the Chorus.
Unfortunately, it’s not all smiles and laughs for the film, as any group consisting mostly of people over the age of 80 will likely see a high turnover rate, as human beings can only survive so long. As the doc goes on, in fact, two of the chorus members we’ve been following so closely pass within a week of each other, and it brings home the reality of the situation that, for many, this chorus is their passion, and may be the last passion they get to fulfill in their lives. While the message of living your life to the fullest thrives, and the message “it’s never too late” exists right next to it, there’s also that additional connection that time is short, for all of us, so do what you love (“do all you can, break all the f*****g rules and go to Hell like Superman and die like a champion, YA HEY!” – Bad Religion, “Do What You Want”).
See this film, seek it out. The full chorale performances of Dylan’s “Forever Young” and Knittle’s rendition of “Fix You” will rock your soul, while The Ramones’ “I Want to Be Sedated” and the Talking Head’s “Road to Nowhere” take on a whole new life and significance. Most importantly, however, seek out the Young@Heart Chorus when they’re touring and catch a show. They will change your life.