I love a good documentary. Hoop Dreams, Spellbound, and American Movie are some of my favorite films of all time. I looked forward to the Young @ Heart DVD, hoping it would reach those lofty heights. It doesn’t, but it’s still pretty good.
The idea of spry senior citizens who eschew sitting around the nursing home or watching Matlock (or its 2008 equivalent) to ride Harley’s, have sex, or skydive has been a staple of movies and television for years. So when I first saw the members of the Young @ Heart chorus, who range in age from 74 to 92, belting out The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go” onstage, I had a bit of a “been there, done that” feeling. Then I remembered that these are real people, not actors, and soon I was enjoying their story, their drive to keep active, and, to a lesser extent, their singing.
Young @ Heart follows the Northampton, Massachusetts based Young @ Heart chorus preparing for their “Alive and Well” concert. The group of 30 or so senior citizens has toured American and Europe and is primarily semi-famous for singing rock songs by the likes of Jimi Hendrix, Coldplay, James Brown, and David Bowie in their concerts. British documentarian Stephen Walker trains his cameras on seven weeks of rehearsals and interviews a handful of the performers at home.
Walker narrates the film with a voice and patter that reminds you of something you’d see on PBS. In fact, this was originally shot for British television before getting a theatrical release. He doesn’t chart any new territory with the interviews but chorus members Eileen Hall, Fred Knittle, Dora Morrow and others do a good job of explaining who they are, as people, not just singers. The rehearsals are fun as chorus director Bob Cilman (a young pup at 53) puts the group through the paces without much allowance for their age. He works them sternly (but respectfully) and watching his frustration with their inability to get the lyrics to Alan Touissant’s “Yes, I Can Can” makes you wish more time was spent on Cilman’s reason for why he does what he does.
Other than the gimmick of men and women in their 70’s and 80’s belting out “Purple Haze” and Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” the chorus doesn’t bowl you over in singing talent. In fact, their own preference for classical, opera, and spirituals makes you wonder how much of this is really Cilman’s show. There are also three or four “music videos” that approach the condescending, and I wish I knew if I should blamer Walker or Cilman for their inclusion. The group does achieve moments of true transcendence like when a woman sings Prince’s “Nothing Compares 2 U” following the death of one of the chorus members or their performance of “Forever Young” at a local prison.
There is more than a little manipulation going on here and a certain amount of condescension by both the filmmaker and us as the audience. We laugh a little when Lenny Fontaine shrieks out “Purple Haze,” but we also have to get caught up in these nice people who have a wonderful hobby that makes themselves and others happy. Walker can’t seem to get off the surface of this story, but it makes for a pleasant ride.
The DVD release for Young @ Heart is a pretty weak effort. Although it’s an enjoyable movie, it only made about $3 million in theaters so I can see with Fox Searchlight didn’t want to spend any money on DVD extras. Still, this is something that could find a respectable audience on DVD and providing a few more extras would have been nice. There is no commentary and I can imagine that a few “behind the scenes” comments by director Stephen Walker would have been interesting. Heck, they could have had a few of the chorus members try their hand at commentary.
The only featurette is a five minute item called [email protected] Goes to Hollywood. While there isn’t any sort of introduction, it looks like the group performed in Hollywood to coincide with the movie release. So there is some backstage comments, rehearsal scenes, and brief glimpses of the concert itself. It’s like a mini version of the movie itself, without as much personality.
There are about 25 minutes of deleted scenes. The scenes include the full version of one song from the concert that was cut off as well as the full version of three of the music videos (ugh.) There are also two or three minute scenes primarily featuring Eileen Hall and Dora Morrow, who are fun to listen to.
That’s pretty much it. You also get the trailer, whoopee! The DVD looks and sounds good and the movie itself is worth a look, so I’d be a real Grinch to say you shouldn’t get it simply because the extras are weak. Still, I would have liked to see a little more.