Directed by: Stephen Walker
Starring: Bob Cilman, Eileen Hall, Joe Benoit, Bob Salvini, Fred Knittle
Young@Heart has been billed as a heartwarming, inspirational film about aging and life, shown through the eyes of an elderly chorus that tours the world performing rock songs and following the group from the beginning of rehearsals to their first public performance of the year. And while there are flashes of humanity, unfortunately the movie is bogged down by the approach of director and BBC documentarian Stephen Walker, which ultimately keeps this good movie from being a great one.
Much of the problem lies in the way Walker has decided to tackle his subject. The chorus—with its renditions of songs ranging from works by The Clash to James Brown to Sonic Youth—is at first glance a gimmick. Since few of the members have much musical talent, the appeal is obviously in the novelty of elderly folks singing Pointer Sisters’ songs.
And therein sits the trouble, since too often the movie depicts the chorus members as old people instead of just people. There is a stigma related to old age in our society, and in some ways the film attempts to show these elderly folks in a more respectful light. But the makers only end up undermining this with moments that are supposed to be funny just because these people are old, like a scene with two of the members trying to remember how CDs work, or the cheesy music videos the filmmakers insist on interspersing throughout the film. Combine this with their reeking-of-failed-musician chorus director—who never gives a reason why he’s in charge or why he decided to make the chorus sing rock songs—and how the group’s performances appear to be more of a comedic gimmick for their fans, and there’s a definite feeling that there’s a joke here that everyone but the chorus members are in on.
That the film never attempts to dispel this notion is unfortunate, especially since once we get to know the chorus members, the film becomes very human and occasionally touching. It quickly becomes apparent that if there this is a joke at their expense, they couldn’t care less, since the real appeal for those involved is just singing. All of the members (at least the ones who are interviewed) are personable and, best of all, real, which results in there being an inherent connection between the viewer and the chorus members—creating what seems to be the rarest of all things, a movie about aging and death that isn’t ultimately depressing.
It’s a pity then that the makers couldn’t trust their subject and instead schmaltz everything up with sappy sentimental background music or manipulative editing, which happens when a couple of the chorus members pass away during the course of the film. It’s obvious that Walker’s training is with the BBC since the entire film looks (with its watery video-camera footage) and feels like an overlong episode of a human-interest news story. And it doesn’t help that he’s in the background of the entire movie, inexplicably narrating the film as some disembodied British voice, overly explaining everything that goes on and constantly intruding on the proceedings with his often obvious or pointless observations. Young@Heart has a really good film buried somewhere underneath all its blunders, and one can’t help but think that the chorus members deserved a little something better, too. Rated PG for some mild language and thematic elements.