Brandy Eve/Fox Searchlight Pictures
Stephen Walker/United Kingdom 2008

Every so often even cynical film critics come across a movie that’s so painstakingly good hearted and upbeat, so hopeful about the potential for transcendence in everyday life, that any critical inclinations simply melt away. Stephen Walker’s Young@Heart, which documents several months in the course of an unusual adult chorus’ season, is such a film.

It’s a work of great defiance, a compelling statement about aging that defies our cultural preconceptions of just what the elderly should be doing. It tells not one affecting human story but several, while eloquently testifying to the force of collective artistic achievement. It also illustrates the mutable power of pop songs, most notably in the ways our own life experiences and understandings shape their personal meaning and impact. As if all that weren’t enough, the picture’s filled with moments of high comedy and poignant drama, not to mention lots of great music.

The filmmaker, heretofore known largely for his British TV work, follows the titular Northampton, Mass.-based chorus for the period directly leading up to its first performance of new material in 2006. He acquaints us with several of the members, such memorable personae as the group’s senior figure, 92-year-old Eileen Hall; Fred Knittle, stricken with congestive heart failure but bent on performing one final time; and Stan Goldman, who just can’t remember his brief solo on “I Feel Good”. There’s also Bob Climan, the group’s tireless and committed leader, who pushes them hard because he believes in the artistic value of what they’re doing and strives to make them more than a simple novelty act. Not only does Walker chronicle the painstaking rehearsal process, and the progression of the other songs (which include Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia”, Coldplay’s “Fix You” and Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can”), he intimately injects his audience into the heart of the group as a whole and those of the everyday individuals that comprise it.

In doing so, he presents an inspiring corrective to the notion that one should begin to wind things down and fade away at a certain age. His choice of chorus members to zero in on pays great dividends, as the characters profiled present unique variations on the common theme of people refusing to surrender to the vagaries of their various physical and/or mental ailments. Above all, Walker reminds us that despite their elderly status, these are still human beings who need to be loved and successful, and who still have dreams worth pursuing. The sensitivity behind the production, as shown in the director’s unfettered depiction of the central figures and the seriousness with which he regards both their daily lives and their achievements with the group, keeps it from ever seeming to be a cynically exploitive exercise. To drive the picture dramatically, Walker relies on the power of the personalities at hand and the wisdom gained from their centuries of combined life experience.

Though death intrudes on Young@Heart, as it must on any work concerning individuals of such advanced age, it’s treated with delicate perspective rather than unabashed moroseness. The movie does not become weighed down in the most difficult reality imminently facing its subjects. Instead, Walker pays tribute to the particular challenge routinely faced by the chorus members: How to experience the deaths of loved ones and/or fellow members and still maintain the fortitude not only to go on, but to continually adhere to the group’s rigorous regime. The climactic concert – filled with impassioned and emotionally rich performances – offers some insight. Without so much as one single moment of talking-head exposition – relying instead on well-chosen close-ups that emphasize the powerful feeling in an on-stage movement or expression – the filmmaker offers a fitting coda to a movie that encapsulates nothing short of the healing power of art.

© 2008 Robert Levin. All rights reserved.

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