Young at Heart
Directed by: Stephen Walker
Rated: PG for some mild language and thematic elements
4.5 out of 5 stars
It is a packed house, the kind you would expect to find at a Rolling Stones or U2 concert. The energy, certainly, is no less intense. But when the spotlight hits the mic, instead of Mick Jagger or Bono stepping up to croon to the audience, out comes Eileen Hall, the oldest (at 92 years of age, the average being 81) member of the Young at Heart chorus. Backed by her geriatric choral mates, she inquires of the crowd in her lilting English accent, “Darling you gotta let me know, should I stay or should I go?” Although she stands no higher than 4’3”, she brings down the house with her cover of The Clash’s punk anthem.
Thus begins Young at Heart, a life affirming documentary in every sense of the two clichéd words. The film follows the elderly chorus over the span of 7 weeks as it rigorously prepares for a hometown concert. Their ringleader and founder, 53 year old Bob Cilman, applies some tougher than expected love as he tosses the chorus into the middle of a new set list. The first song on the agenda: Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia.” The members plug their ears, roll their eyes, and complain that they can’t understand the words. Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can” (with its no less than 73 instances of the word ‘can’) doesn’t fare much better. For a group that almost unanimously claims classical music as their favorite genre, the obvious question is, “Why?” “When you’re singing you forget the creaky bones and the achy back,” answers Len Fontaine.
Brit Director Stephen Walker takes us into each of their vivacious, charming lives. They are, quite simply, larger than life. Witty, outgoing, bright-eyed, they defy your expectations at every turn, and each is a singular joy to get to know. There is Joe Benoit, who can memorize an entire song in a single afternoon; Dora Morrow, a great great grandmother who cuts an impeccable impersonation of James Brown at the beginning of “I Feel Good”; Fred Knittle, an ex-member who quips that he traveled “from continent to continent until I became incontinent”; Eileen Hall, who flirts with the film crew and threatens them with a striptease; and the unbelievable Steve Martin, who works out 3 times a week, drives a sports car, and claims that sex is better at 80 because “it takes twice as long.”
The most surprising aspect of Young at Heart is how the lyrics of many of the songs take on an unexpected poignancy when sung by people near the end of their lives. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” takes on an entirely new meaning in the mouths of the Young at Hearters: “Just put me in a wheelchair, get me to the show, hurry hurry hurry before I go loco, I can’t control my fingers, I can’t control my toes, oh no no no no no”. But no song is more touching, more revelatory, and more bittersweet than Coldplay’s “Fix You,” sung by ex-member Fred Knittle, who dropped out 5 years previously due to health concerns. At the final sold-out concert, with the recent deaths of two beloved members hanging over the chorus, Fred takes the stage with oxygen machine in hand for one last performance. “Tears stream down your face, when you lose something you cannot replace…Lights will guide you home and ignite your bones and I will try to fix you.” I’m tearing up even as I type this, and I’m unashamed to admit that I wept in the theater.
In a society that has so little respect for the elderly, relegating the infirm to nursing homes when we should be celebrating them, and neglecting those who have given so much to us and to our country, Young at Heart is a desperate reminder that life does not end at 60. It is a stirring film that will inject a shot of life into even the stoniest of hearts, and it comes highly recommended for ages 12 through 100. And afterwards, when you leave the theater with a goofy grin on your face, be sure to give your grandparents a call.
Young at Heart is currently playing at the Circle Cinema. Call 592-FILM for showtimes and tickets.
Evan Derrick loves movies, loves talking about movies, and even makes them from time to time. In the rare moment when movies aren’t consuming his grey matter, he enjoys eating grilled cheese sandwiches, playing with his baby daughter, and pretending to be the senior editor for MovieZeal.com. Use the Tulsa Today search feature to read previous reviews by this author.