The critical consensus on Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart (IMDB), a documentary that focuses on a musical group by the same name featuring singers in their 70s, 80s, and even 90s, covering contemporary rock songs has been relatively consistent. There are few things more heartwarming than watching a group of senior citizens energetically performing songs by the Rolling Stones, Coldplay, the Clash, and the Talking Heads. And yet, in places, Stephen Walker’s intrusive narration–his desire to show rather than tell the story of this remarkable group–almost gets in the way. Still, when Walker is content to observe, to let the story of this wonderful group unfold, we are given access to a wonderful community of people who keep going the best way they know how: by having fun together performing before enthusiastic crowds.
As a number of critics have pointed out, including the New York Times’ Stephen Holden, the premise of the group and the documentary itself could easily risk falling into caricature. It would be easy for these performances to fall into “rapping granny” jokiness or cloying sentimentality; however, the members of the group are far too reflective and self-aware to let that happen. Instead, we connect with the group because of their unbridled enthusiasm for life, their desire to keep going and to provide as much joy as possible. And it’s impossible not to share in the fun when a group of older singers perform “I Wanna be Sedated” in a way that seems far more punk than pretty much anything the Ramones ever did. The group’s power becomes especially poignant when they perform a concert in a New Hampshire prison, singing Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” just a couple of hours after learning that one member of the group had passed away. As the group performs we see hardened prisoners and guards both moved to tears.
Young@Heart focuses on the group’s preparations for a concert in Northampton over the course of two pivotal months. The group’s leader, Bob Cilman, who has directed Young@Heart for the entire 25 years of the group’s existence, introduces them to a number of songs, including James Brown’s “I Feel Good” and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” both of which present unique challenges to a group of singers more comfortable with opera and the classics. Still, the singers enthusiastically pour themselves into learning and interpreting the songs, and there are moments of recognition that are utterly fascinating.
In fact, Young@Heart offers one of the most compelling examples of adaptation that I’ve encountered in some time. To hear a group of septuagenarians performing songs such as the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere,” the Bee Gees’ “Stayin’ Alive” and the Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” is to hear these songs in a whole new way. “Stayin’ Alive” becomes, quite literally, an act of defiance, not the cheesy masculine bravado associated with John Travolta. But, by far, the most compelling act of reinterpretation comes with Fred Knittles’ performance of Coldplay’s “Fix It.” Originally planned to be a duet with another choir member, Bob Salvini, Knittles is forced to perform the song as a solo when Salvini passes away suddenly, providing the song with an incredible emotional power (something I never would have expected out of a Coldplay song).
These performances left me with a number of questions that the documentary didn’t–and probably couldn’t–answer. As I watched the Young@Heart singers reinterpret these songs, I wondered what it would be like to be the original authors of the song and to see these songs bringing such joy to a group of genuinely cool people. I would have loved to see the reactions of Chris Martin of Coldplay or David Byrne as they saw the joy that their songs were bringing to both to the Young@Heart singers and their audiences in the U.S. and abroad. At the same time, Walker never quite asked a question that I wished he had pursued. On one level, it’s pretty clear why Bob Cilman might devote his career to working with the Young@Heart singers. The pleasure of working with this group of individuals is abundantly clear, but Walker never really follows through on how Cilman ended up choosing this path. Still, Young@Heart helped bring into focus some important questions about cultural assumptions about aging and death and provided a remarkable opportunity to celebrate music, friendship, and the joy of living.