Young @ Heart (documentary)

It sounds like a cheap gimmick: a senior citizens’ choral group that performs covers of rock ‘n’ roll songs. But the Young @ Heart Chorus is more than a novelty act. As the beautiful and exhilarating documentary “Young @ Heart” shows, the lyrics to familiar rock tunes take on new significance when sung by a group whose members’ average age is 80. What’s more, the vitality and exuberance of these old folks is incalculably inspiring. A more genuinely sweet and uplifting documentary I have not seen in quite a while.

British filmmaker Stephen Walker spends seven weeks with the Massachusetts-based chorus in the spring of 2006 as they prepare for an upcoming concert. The group, led by Bob Cilman, a 50-ish musician with the air of former hippie about him, has quite a few songs in its repertoire already, and Bob is teaching them several new ones. They meet once a week in what looks like a community center’s rec room, with the frequency of rehearsals increasing as the deadline draws near.

The chorus members are diverse, some living in rest homes while others are still independent, some in poor health while others are still spry, some with musical training and genuine vocal talent while others … just enjoy singing. They’re about evenly split between men and women, the vast majority white with a few African Americans. Soloists are featured on all the songs, with the chorus providing backup.

The singers relish their time together and seem to count one another as friends outside of “work,” too. There’s a carpool group consisting of Lenny, Eileen, and Joe. Lenny drives because he’s the only one of the three who still can. Eileen, 92 and British, is a deliciously saucy old gal with white chin whiskers and a sparkling wit. Joe has a legendary knack for memorizing new lyrics (an impressive skill with this bunch) and has survived six bouts of chemotherapy.

We don’t spend time with every one of the two dozen members, but we do get to know several of them. (Like all good documentaries, the footage here has been chosen according to how compelling and dramatic the people’s stories are.) There’s Steve, who drives a fast car and is almost shockingly active for a man his age. There’s Stan, who for the life of him CANNOT remember his two solo lines in James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” There’s Fred, a giant horse of a man who had to retire from the group due to health problems but is coming back for this show, his vaudevillian sense of humor and rich, deep voice still intact. The sight of him attached to a portable oxygen tank, which he requires at all times, yet still singing as loudly and melodiously as a man with a perfectly healthy heart, is emblematic of the film: These people are old and often infirm, but they’ve still got spirit.

Bob seems to take perverse delight in giving his crew of old folks some really difficult songs to work with. One of the new numbers he’s chosen this time is Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” a jarring punk number with bizarre lyrics. Everyone hates it. One of the singers exclaims in sarcastic delight, “Ooh! A note!” when she finds a melody. Yet they work at it, having learned to trust Bob’s instincts.

They work just as hard with “Yes We Can Can,” the Pointer Sisters hit whose chorus goes: “Oh yes we can, I know we can can, yes we can can, why can’t we if we wanna, yes we can can.” The word “can” appears in the song 71 times. How is ANYONE supposed to memorize that, let alone a bunch of 80-year-olds? Yet as Eileen says, “It’s keeping your brain going. If you don’t use it, you lose it.”

In the midst of rehearsals, the group takes a field trip to perform at a prison. That very morning, they learn that one of their members has died. These elements all come together in a sublime and powerful performance of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young”:

May God bless and keep you always,
May your wishes all come true,
May you always do for others
And let others do for you. […]

May you grow up to be righteous,
May you grow up to be true,
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you.
May you always be courageous,
Stand upright and be strong,
May you stay forever young.

Sung by 80-year-olds whose friend has just died, the song takes on a sense of indomitable strength and optimism. Sung to a crowd of felons, young men who already have serious regrets in their lives, it’s a gentle nudging toward repentance and hope. You can see in the eyes of some of the inmates that the song has touched them. It’s a profoundly moving scene.

The film ends with the performance they’ve been rehearsing for, where there’s still suspense over whether Stan will get his two lines right. More urgently, there’s some question concerning the health of some chorus members. There’s a performance of Coldplay’s “Fix You” that will bring whatever tears are still left after the prison sequence.

And that’s why the Young @ Heart Chorus is more than just a novelty act, and why this documentary is more than just a look-at-the-cute-old-people trifle. These rock songs, as incongruous as they may sound coming from the wizened lips of senior citizens, really mean something. The Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere” has them singing, “We’re not little children, and we know what we want,” a not-so-gentle reminder not to condescend to the elderly. The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated” has obvious significance to a class of people whose lives revolve around medication. The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” sounds like a far more cosmic question than the Clash intended.

These people live their lives with the specter of death constantly shadowing them, never sure who will be staying or going this week or the next. And yet they remain upbeat and happy, determined to live their lives to the fullest regardless of how much time they have left. You can’t help but be charmed and inspired by their positivity. The best any of us can hope for when we’re 80 is to have lives as fulfilling as this.

A- (1 hr., 47 min.; PG, a little very mild profanity.)