'Young@Heart': Retirees revivify rock 'n' roll

In the feel-good documentary, a choir of seniors sing inspired versions of pop songs.

courtesy of Brandy Eve Allen/fox searchlight
Pop stars: A group of senior choristers in Northampton, Mass., have become an international sensation by singing rock songs.

You're never too old to rock – that's the underlying message of "Young@Heart," a documentary about a chorus whose average age is 80.

Young@Heart, based in Northampton, Mass., and under the exacting tutelage of their longtime director Bob Cilman, has gained an international reputation over the past 25 years, touring Australia, Europe, and Canada. Obviously the composition of the chorus has not remained static, and, in fact, during the course of the film, two members die. But the downright spunkiness of the singers is revivifying and probably contributes in no small part to their longevity.

"Young@Heart" is a tribute to the therapeutic powers of musicmaking and choral camaraderie.

The documentary was directed by Stephen Walker and initially produced for British television by his wife, Sally George. It focuses on the group's two-month preparation – three rehearsals per week – for a 2006 concert at the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton. The choice of songs for the concert carries a double meaning.

When we hear the group, which is backed by a professional band, belt out James Brown's "I Feel Good," The Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere," Coldplay's "Fix You," The Ramones' "I Want to Be Sedated," and The Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," the words carry a special significance. Each becomes, in its own way, an anthem of survival. This is not a group that indulges in the blues.

Despite the boisterous uplift that characterizes the onstage sequences, Walker does not sugarcoat the members' lives or downplay their infirmities. I wish, however, that he had provided more of a background to their lives. He's so caught up in the spiritedness of the group that he skimps on addressing our desire to know more about these people and where they came from. He saps the richness of their lives by turning them into role models.

Singers like 83-year-old Joe Benoit, who could memorize an entire song in an afternoon, or 90-something London-born Eileen Hall, who turns "Should I Stay or Should I Go" into a straightforward, no-nonsense request, no doubt have rich back stories that are only sketched in here. (The press program notes about the choral members' backgrounds are far more informative than the film.)

Another problem is that Walker periodically intersperses the action with MTV-style music videos starring the group. The videos, directed by George, are jarring and borderline surrealistic and have the effect of turning the singers into a gaggle of frenetic codgers.

But with all these drawbacks, "Young@Heart" still manages to work its magic. It also makes you want to go out and join a chorus – whatever your age may be.

Rated PG for some mild language and thematic elements.

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