May 22, 2008

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Young @ Heart (PG)
Septuagenarians — as well as some sexis-, octis- and at least one nona — sing the heck out of a quirky mix tape of rock tunes in Young @ Heart, a sweet, fun, funny, touching and, dare I say it, inspiring documentary about the senior citizen musical performers in the Young @ Heart Chorus.

When we first meet these crazy rock kids (the median age seems to be somewhere in the 70s), the Young @ Heart Chorus is already internationally famous and as beloved in their home in Northampton, Mass., as oh, I don’t know if saying “as The Beatles were in Liverpool” or “U2 is in Ireland” really brings home the extent to which this group is absolutely adored. As the documentarian Stephen Walker and we the audience spend time with the singers, we start to understand why. The idea of having fogeys (who themselves seem to mostly like classical music and 1940s and 1950s musicals) sing songs by Talking Heads and The Clash might seem gimmicky, but the novelty wears away to reveal some creative choral arrangements (who knew Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” was so beautiful?) and covers that pack significant emotional heft (a deep-voiced member named Fred Knittle gives Coldplay’s “Fix You” a raw power similar to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” — like that but more powerful, if such a thing can be imagined). We get to know the members — like perky Eileen Hall, who is in her nineties and clearly loves flirting with the camera crew, and Dora Morrow, who seems ever ready to dance and who, like many in the group, trips over all the “can”s in Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” one of the handful of new songs the chorus is learning for their next tour. A big show in Northampton is the capper to the seven weeks the film follows the group as they try to crack those new songs. In between rehearsals where director Bob Cilman all but tears out his hair trying to get the singers to remember all the “can”s and when to chime in for their solos, we get to know the chorus members and their families, learning how they got involved in the group (many had no prior singing experience outside of maybe their church choirs) and what Young @ Heart means to them.

And, of course, what the group means to its members is what makes the chorus so much bigger than its “elder rock” premise and what allows it to radiate that specialness out to the audience. For these retirees (at least one of whom lives in an assisted living facility), the group is a way to stay connected to life, to not just pass the days but to spend their time doing something that is fun and meaningful to them. (And even spread that meaning around — as we see in a scene where Young @ Heart performs for men at a jail, men who during a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young” seem to go to pains with sunglasses and hard blinks not to lose it in front of their fellow inmates.) They have a social network, they work together on common and sometimes difficult goals, they have achievements, they have setbacks — in short, they keep on living.

They keep on living up right up until they don’t. The Young @ Heart Chorus does not have any of the same members it started with in 1982, according to the group’s Web site. Even the group’s good spirit and sunny attitude toward life does not stop time — a fact that the movie makes evident. But the Young @ Heart crowd seems to have a healthy approach to the end of life. By continuing to make the most of the time they have left, we get a sense that the group has added a richness and a fullness to how they view their lives. When asked about their own deaths, many of the members voice a kind of plucky “the show must go on, that’s how I’d want it” attitude that seems to be a symptom of their overall optimism.

And we hear this wisdom- and acceptance-rich approach to life come out in the songs. The group’s older voices bring added layers to everything, making music and, even the most punk of punk rock, seem less about rebellious youth and more about an ageless desire to wring happiness out of everything. And with an emotional rich song like “Fix You,” which becomes about so much more than Chris Martin could have possibly… what? No, shut up, it’s just something in my eyes, dust, or something. That hanky? It’s for my allergies. But if someone did shed a tear or two, Young @ Heart makes sure it’s an honest, almost joyful moment. B+

Rated PG for some mild language and thematic elements. Directed by Stephen Walker, Young @ Heart is an hour and 48 minutes long and is distributed in limited release by Fox Searchlight. The movie is scheduled to open Friday, May 23, at Red River Theatres and Wilton Town Hall Theater.