Sunday, June 08, 2008

Young@Heart movie review: SEE IT.

It happens every 7 or 8 years, like clockwork...

I haven’t cried at a movie since 2000 (Billy Elliot). Before that, it was 1993 (Schindler's List). I can add another one to the list as of last night, however last night with Young@Heart. I cried at the movie and I cried talking about the movie going home.

Let me make this as clear as I can—you need to see this movie.

I’m going to talk about it a bit now. There will be a few spoilers in here. I’m not sure they’d ruin the movie, but if you want to see Young@Heart (and trust me—you do), you might postpone reading the rest of this entry until afterwards. Don't forget to come back here then, though...I really want to know what you all think about it.


I’m not sure where this movie hit me harder—with the cold reality of my own mortality or with the incredible importance—and ability—to reach each other through art. Both of these absolutely gut-level core components of life were communicated in this film as intensely and clearly as in any film, book, or poem I’ve ever encountered.

To be honest, I was a little trepidatious going in. When Swankette showed me the YouTube videos a little while back, and when we saw the previews for Young@Heart, I feared that the choristers were being exploited. (Ha, ha! Look at the geezers singing punk rock!) But it didn't take long in the movie before I saw that wasn’t happening. We simply had a group of men and women who wanted to sing and had a quirky opportunity to do so here.

Bob Cilman, the director of the Young At Heart chorus (an assemblage of elderly singers—the youngest is 70—in Northampton, Massachusetts), has decided to bring two singers back for a show. Fred has left the group four years earlier with congestive heart failure, and Bob (not Cilman) left due to his own chronic health problems. Both are on the mend, however, and Cilman decides that they should perform Coldplay’s “Fix You.” They work on it as a duet for a while when Bob relapses a bit. He goes to the hospital with chest pains, but insists on attending rehearsal the next day. He stumbles through the song as best he can…but he can barely stand, breathe, or sing. He’s hospitalized, and his family puts the poster for the concert on his wall to encourage him. Bob insists he’ll be back. Even in his hospital bed, I can feel his frustration. I can feel him thinking “Damn it, the desire is there, and I should be able to perform this damn solo with the group…so why won’t my body let me? Come on, body, get it together!” That must be the absolute worst thing about getting older. In spite of his obvious passion, Bob passes away a couple of weeks before the performance.

This leads to the scene from this film that I will never, ever forget. Fred realizes he’ll need to make what was once a duet into a solo, so he gets to work. He sits at his computer with his oxygen tank, watching the Coldplay video on his computer, carefully singing along.

Something about that scene absolutely breaks me up.

Part of it is that, due to all the singing I’ve done (from high school through Chasers through Sorry Charlie’s through Karaoke from Hell), I identified with all of these singers. It’s not just the whole “the show must go on” clichĂ©, which the surviving performers say over and over again with painful sincerity. All say “I’d want them to go on without me, and I know Bob feels the same way.”

Fred’s moments at his computer say so much more than that. They’re about a desire to get art right. Why? Because we need to reach other people before we’re dead, and art is the best way to do that. And as Fred sits sucking oxygen through his nose, 28 months after the doctors gave him 24 months to live, admitting that this is likely his last-ever performance, that desire takes on incredible resonance. He’s never heard of Coldplay, but he’s looking at that screen, singing along, finding the marrow of the music, the heart of the poetry—because, on some level, it’s his imperative. He simply must reach people--that's why we're here. And with the help of art, of this kid on his computer screen, about a third of his age--maybe he can do that.

Watching Fred sing that song in concert while Bob’s wife and daughters sob in the audience…well, that success—that’s what it’s all about. Any performer at any level can tell you that.

(The scene is here, but it's better if you see the movie.)

This brought me to another big question. While I would be immensely proud to be a member of Young At Heart when I am of age (Swankette and I were talking about perhaps retiring to Northampton 32 years hence so I could get on board), it’s not like their musicianship, voices, or performance are at the level of your local opera chorus (or even your local high school’s top group). I do NOT mean this as a criticism. Several of the individuals (most notably Fred) have incredible voices, but time impacts the vocal cords as much as any other body part. But the performance is undeniably moving. However, I would not have been nearly as moved by Fred’s rendition of “Fix You” if I hadn’t spent the previous hour getting to know him. I’m not much of a fan of Coldplay, and probably wouldn’t keep the radio on the station of “Fix You” came on, but hearing Fred sing it was one of the most moving experiences of my music-listening life.

If the choir were making the same quality of sounds, but were made up of 30-year-olds, I would not have been nearly as moved.

Had I not known about Fred’s situation or Bob’s death, I would not have been nearly as moved.

What is the relationship between the performer and the art?

(How can we know the dancer from the dance?)

I don’t have answers to these questions. But I'm not sure that it's an important goal to answer them. At the heart of it, what matters is that I feel these men’s and women’s desire to somehow be in people’s hearts through art. That's why I've spent so much solitary time scrawling out poems, singing songs, and hacking away at a blog. Attention slut that I am, I likely always keep at these pursuits. So I was absolutely on their side, seeing a wrinkled me, half a century hence, hoping all of us can reach every member of every audience for as long as we can.

Any movie that makes me really mull over my mortality, think about the role of art and performance in that life, and intensify my desire to reach as many people as I can in whatever time I have left is a hell of a movie.

Straight up, friends. See this movie.


Paula said...

I was thinking of inviting my mom. Now I will.

Shannin said...

It's amazing how the lyrics take on such new meaning coming from this group vs. Cold Play.