The audience comes to life with the first beats of the unexpected.

Young at Heart

An Illusion Review by Joan Ellis

            “Young at Heart” is a mirthful answer to a big question: what do I do when I’m old? We aren’t talking advanced middle age in this documentary; we’re talking old. And we aren’t talking about a hobby; it’s all about passion and work and structure, and there aren’t too many activities that offer that combination to old people.

            Young at Heart is the name of a chorus of 24 people from 75 – 94 who live in Northampton, MA and tour the U.S. and Europe singing under the direction of an extraordinary younger man named Bob Cilman. With an inexplicable mix of energy and compassion, Cilman has created a focus for these people that gives them a chance to be excited about living. He makes big demands on their time and talent because he understands their commitment to the chorus is their lifeline. He asks them to work hard, and there is no hint of condescension in his efforts.

            With a concert date six weeks off, they are learning “Schizophrenia,” a song from the punk band “Sonic Youth;” try Coldplay and Talking Heads and a potential spirit buster where, at a fast clip, the word “can” is repeated 71 times. The goal of the group is not fine choral singing, but the fellowship of friends dedicated to learning new musical rhythms rarely associated with their age group. Their audiences come to life with the first beats of the unexpected.

            Genuine laughter is a primary ingredient in the chemistry of the group. The movie audience is won by the remarkable wit of the singers as they navigate the rapid fire lyrics of jazz and rock. They obviously love rehearsals for which they are on time in all kinds of weather. When sadness hits, and it does in the natural course of things, the loss is on some level an expected loss. But it is still the loss of a friend and colleague they have come to know very well through rehearsal, performance, and travel.

            British documentary filmmaker Stephen Walker explores the chemistry in non-intrusive interviews with the singers. Neither chemotherapy, nor chest pain, nor an oxygen canister keeps them from rehearsals. “Why do you keep coming?” Answer: “I love what I’m doing. That’s what my life is now – singing.” They sing in cars, in busses, in concert halls, and, in an especially moving scene, in a prison.

            If one answer to old age is discovering what you love to do, another is the beauty of acceptance. These people are beyond annoyance or judgment. Frailty surrounds them, but so does good will. There is little pettiness among them and no complaint at all. When we watch Eileen Hall, at 94, studying her music in large print with a magnifying glass at home and finally belting out “Yes, I can, can , can” 71 times on stage we realize that the hardest to find and most valuable enhancement of old age is work.


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