A lesson for the ages
March 08, 2007
Everyone who plans to grow old should see the new documentary about the Young at Heart Chorus.
By turns joyful, funny, and sad, it is, above all, an unflinching look at growing old.
It's also triumphant, if you consider people doing things they love, in spite of age and infirmity, right up until the day they die to be triumphant, which I do.
I'd like to say it's a film about growing old gracefully. But, for me, one of the things the film does so well is to explode many myths and romantic notions about growing old - chief among them that you can even do so gracefully.
There's no way around it, getting old is hard on the body, mind and spirit, and the film, a made-for-British-TV documentary directed by Stephen Walker and Sally George, doesn't even try to gussy that up.
Chorus members walk, sometimes painfully slowly, up to the microphones to practice their solos. Some of them forget their lines, repeatedly. A woman studies her lines using a magnifying glass over extra-large print.
In one scene, Bob Cilman, the group's longtime director, practically winces himself as he watches a frail member ease himself into a metal folding chair. "I don't know which is worse, watching you getting down or Stan getting up," he says.
At the same time, it is abundantly clear how much they love to sing. On stage, before adoring crowds.
"You forget all about the creaky bones, the knees, the hips and shoulders, the back," says one member.
This chorus, by the way, is known for its adventurous song selections: hard rock, punk rock, reggae. They freely admit many songs in their repertoire are not ones they are drawn to sing, and some complain about Cilman's song choices. But they also seem to like that he challenges them and has high expectations. "I'm trying to expand my horizon," says one.
Much bittersweet humor is laced through this film, via jokes about subjects that make many people squeamish.
At one practice, Cilman notes that it is Jack Schnepp's birthday. "It's an especially great birthday for Jack because while he's sitting here, we have the possibility that he'll pass a kidney stone," says Cilman. "Is there any other medical issue people want to reveal today?"
One of the narrative lines in the film follows Bob Salvini, a beloved member in ill health, whom Cilman has invited to perform a duet with Fred Knittle, another ailing chorus member. They are to sing the Coldplay song "Fix You" in the upcoming show "Alive and Well."
The camera shows Salvini and Knittle and their serious health crises - Knittle returns with an oxygen tank and Salvini is so weak he must be assisted to a chair by other chorus members. In another scene after Salvini misses a practice, Cilman updates the chorus on his health. Although he'd been so sick just the day before that he'd received the last rites, he's now in rehab, hoping to be well for the show.
"I'm curious," Cilman asks, "have any of you had the last rites said to you?"
Laughing, two briefly tell their last rites stories.
"Jean, did you see that white light everybody talks about?"
"No. I refused to look."
They all cut up. "That's a good one," Cilman says. "Who wants to see the light?"
Sadly, Bob Salvini didn't make it, and in another scene, we see a yellow school bus filled with chorus members preparing to make a trip to a show. Although the camera doesn't film this, audio records the exchange. We hear Diane Porcella, Cilman's assistant, break the news to chorus members, who cry out in anguish.
"Yesterday afternoon, he was practicing his song, and he was looking forward to practicing again with Bob Cilman today," Porcella says. "But he gave out. And we go on."
For me, a quiet interview with Cilman reflecting on how Salvini's death affects the chorus captures the essence of the film, when the filmmaker asks how the group goes on after such a loss.
"I guess the other question is how can you not?" says Cilman. "I think it's really helpful to have everyone together. And to sing."
The film "Young@Heart" plays at the Academy of Music Saturday at 7 p.m. and Sunday at 2 and 7 p.m.. Tickets are $10.
Laurie Loisel, Daily Hampshire Gazette