June 28, 2008



The Gene Siskel Theater in Chicago's Loop has been showing "The Singing Revolution," a documentary about Estonia. The people of Estonia--a former USSR country--would take to the streets in the thousands and sing to both protest what was being done to their national identity and to preserve it. The documentary, "Young @ Heart," about a rock n' roll chorus of septuagenarians, octogenarians and one nonagenarian, is a different kind of "singing revolution."


What are these utterly inspiring senior citizens "revolting" against? Stagnation, hopelessness, and, ultimately, death. The "Young @ Heart" chorus is from Northampton, Massachusetts, and tours all over the world. Their demanding director, Bob Cilman, 53, is not graced with patience, and becomes exasperated at their memory lapses during rehearsals.* He doesn't baby them at all, and they love him for it. The live band also sports some venerable musicians. Are they any good? There is obvious talent among the multi-ethnic group, including an Italian tenor, a resonant bass, a bluesy female singer, but others are just average. Aside from some touching solos, the bunch tends to generally oversing and blast every syllable out at top-volume, but who cares? If you've got the lungs and singing chops in your sunset years--be my guest.


So, why rock n' roll? Why not show tunes? Cilman actually began in 1982 having seniors sing vaudeville, but when a rock song was once covered, it brought the house down, so he switched. Cilman chooses all the eclectic rock songs, and for some reason, the group seems to excel at punk rock. (Check out their rendition of Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia.") He picks ironic songs also, like David Bowie's "Golden Years," and the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated." Do these folks even like rock n' roll? No. They are classical and opera aficionados, but they want to open themselves to new forms of expression. It's fascinating to watch these elders--with so much life-experience--interpreting lyrics written by artists fifty years younger than they. Many of the songs, like Coldplay's already-rich "Fix You," are given added layers of profundity by those who have lived these universal human sentiments over and over, for years and years. You can literally watch them meditate on the lyrics, their eyes far away.


Music is the universal language. Arthur Fiedler caused a stir when he began covering Beatles' songs with the Boston Pops. Now it's just commonplace that Metallica would record with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra, or that Northwestern University's student musicians would cover Radiohead at the Pritzker Pavillion in Millennium Park.


The tone of the documentary, by British filmmaker/narrator, Stephen Walker, is low-key (no pun intended), and at first rather airy and humorous, and we wonder if we're ever going to really get to know these performers. The answer is yes, gradually. "Young @ Heart" skillfully avoids nostalgia and dwelling on the past. We get to know the singers in the now. Their aches and pains, spouses and children, medical prognoses. Much is made of their exact physical conditions, which become all-consuming for some (three members of the chorus pass away before the documentary is finished). Suddenly, we are looking in a time-mirror. We are looking at ourselves. We're all dying. That's what makes "Young @ Heart" so poignant. As we watch Fred--oxygen tubes up his nose, body filling with fluid from congestive heart failure, only able to sing while sitting--we ask ourselves: Will I be that enthusiastic, caring, brave in my old age? (There's also a hilarious rehearsal where Stan stiffly belts out James Brown's "I Feel Good." He's suffering from a painful spinal problem and feels anything but good.)


Are they afraid to die? No more than the rest of us. Many calmly refer to the Lord knowing when their time is up. There's a feeling of right order, that everything is as it should be somehow, and they're grateful. Starry-eyed, 92-year-old Eileen speaks blissfully of the rainbow she'll be sitting on in the next life. Their "revolution" is not so much against the "dying of the light," but dying before you're dead. And it's wonderful to see how this cohort, more or less my mother's age, widows and widowers, who lived through the Depression and World War II, have such solicitude for each other. The solicitude expands to their audiences. One of the most moving scenes in the film is a concert at a prison. The chorus sings seemingly incongruous songs of joy, hope and good wishes that seemed to say to the prisoners: Hey, you made a mistake, so what? Life is still beautiful.

There is something healing about being in the presence of thoughtful older people. When I was very sick several years ago, I made it a point to hang out only with our older sisters because they were softer around the edges, had learned to let a lot go, didn't need to understand everything, had no great and busy projects and plans, and lived simply in the present moment.

For many, the chorus has become central to their immediate purpose in life. Some are literally living for the next rehearsal, pushing themselves beyond doctor's orders. They feel a commitment to each other, the audiences, Bob Cilman. Rock n' roll is full of life, and so are the aged.

I vote for "Young @ Heart" as the "feel good" movie of the year.
*So get them a teleprompter for Pete's sake!

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