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The Independent Critic

The Young @ Heart Chorus, Bob Cilman
Stephen Walker
Rated PG
110 Mins.
Fox Searchlight

 "Young @ Heart" Review 
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I've never really cared for old people.

Horrible, isn't it?

I'm 42-years-old living with spina bifida. I'm well past the age anyone thought I would live and, yet, I've never really had any qualms about dying.

I've always sworn that the day I require a nursing home is the day I plan to check out. Don't get me wrong. I've got no issue with a healthy degree of interdependence. That's one of the perks, if you will, of being learn fairly quickly that we, as human beings, truly need each other.

It's not necessarily a bad thing to depend on others.

Yet, as I've hit 40 I'm beginning to finally face the serious limitations of spina bifida that I avoided for so many years.

While so many other disabled adults have been driving their wheelchair van, I flew by in my convertible.

While so many lived economically modest lives on disability, I've been fortunate to have worked full-time, owned my own home and lived largely independently for most of my adult years.

Most of my friends scoff when I talk about "offing" myself at the point of dependence, gently nudging me towards the idea that such a degree of dependence is likely to never happen and, if by some chance it does, I've created such good will around me that I'm likely to find myself surrounded by a community who would jump right in.

These same friends would likely adore British documentarian Stephen Walker's emotionally involving yet endlessly perky "Young @ Heart," a film about a choir by the same name from New England that has made quite a name for itself by tackling the works of such bands as Sonic Youth, Coldplay, the Clash, the Ramones and others.

Filmed over the course of seven weeks leading up to and including a show in Northampton, "Young @ Heart" truly celebrates the inherent worth and lives of these singers, whose ages range from 72 to their 90's. While most of the seniors acknowledge a fondness for classical music and opera over the works they perform, they dive into their alternative works largely owing to the limitless energy of their compassionate taskmaster, a middle-aged Bob Cilman.

Having viewed "Young @ Heart" in the company of a group of seniors, it became abundantly obvious that Walker and Fox Searchlight are facing quite the challenge in marketing "Young @ Heart." After all, young folks don't really enjoy the idea of growing old and old folks don't really like being reminded of their mortality.

Inevitably, "Young @ Heart" accomplishes both in ways both sad and celebratory.

While I never enjoyed older folks, I gained a new perspective on them when the behavioral health unit I worked for opened a gero-psych unit. Suddenly, in the role of counselor and chaplain, I found myself experiencing the gifts and challenges of aging on a daily basis.

Truth be told, I gained an appreciation for the life experience, spirit and absolute courage it takes to grow old in a society that so often embraces youth and casts off those deemed no longer productive or worthy.

In "Young @ Heart," these older folks deal everyday with the aches and pains, terminal diagnoses and mounting losses that accompany aging. One almost gets the sense that Walker intended "Young @ Heart" to be far more celebratory, but by the film's mid-point there's no denying that, despite Walker's occasionally intrusive affectionate interludes, the film transcends its touchy-feely foundation as it follows two particular choir members as they come face-to-face with their own mortality.

Walker starts off the film with the almost absurd observation that filming with "Young @ Heart" is like finding himself surrounded by dozens of grandparents, an odd observation given that Walker never really plays much more than observer with the group, despite a frequently maudlin voiceover and interview questions that would make Katie Couric proud.

Walker's use of peppy music video type transitions, as well, comes off as more forced and condescending than celebratory and irreverent. It felt as if Walker didn't quite trust the power of the film's message. Rather than enforce the message, however, these interludes occasionally contradict it.

When Walker gets himself out of the way, however, "Young @ Heart" is an entertaining and frequently moving documentary. His subjects are absolutely delightful, ranging from a 92-year-old former war bride (Eileen Hall) to an absolutely soulful singer (Fred Knittle) facing the fact that the Northampton show is likely to be his last show.

Anyone who has ever attempted to memorize a song or a script or a cue will likely chuckle with familiarity watching choir members struggling to rap their minds around such challenging works as Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," a song that incorporates the word "can" an unfathomable 71 times. With a zest and determination not often matched by bands half their age, the members of "Young @ Heart" seem to fearlessly dive in even when the material doesn't quite make sense, such as with Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia."

While the interviews feel a tad staged and a free pre-Northampton concert at a local prison feels emotionally manipulative, there's an undeniable joy in watching the members of "Young @ Heart" overcome challenging material, face down mortality, conquer medical challenges and truly, powerfully live.

The film's highlight is a performance, reminiscent of Johnny Cash's take on Trent Reznor's "Hurt," in which Fred Knittle poignantly owns Coldplay's "Fix You," a song that was meant to be a duet but, sadly, has become a solo by the time the concert comes around. Knittle's performance, while sitting on the stage wearing an oxygen tank, is both heartbreaking and exhilarating.

Sound and camera work are generally adequate, though the sound mix occasionally fluctuates a bit in transition between concert scenes and voiceover narration.

Had Walker, a TV documentarian, gotten himself more out fo the way, "Young @ Heart" would have easily been one of the year's most delightful feature length documentaries. As it is, "Young @ Heart" remains a vibrant and entertaining reminder of the power of the human spirit to overcome life and death and the lyrics of Allen Toussaint.

© Written by Richard Propes
The Independent Critic