Singing toward death

Joe’s doctor doesn’t think he should go on tour. Joe ignores the advice and travels around the world to perform. Pretty standard for a young rock star, right? Well, yes.

Joe’s doctor doesn’t think he should go on tour. Joe ignores the advice and travels around the world to perform. Pretty standard for a young rock star, right? Well, yes.

But Joe isn’t some know-it-all 20-something in a punk band; he’s an 83-year-old geriatric who has gone through several bouts of chemotherapy. And his band, they’re not really a band-they’re more like a choir, one filled with dozens of people who are closer to death than they are to birth.

For Joe, “…Time is pretty much marked. I’m not worried about cancer.”

Joe is part of the Young@Heart Chorus, a group of retirees in North Hampton, Mass., who travel the world performing covers of songs most of them have never heard. As the group, whose ages range from 72 to 92, prepares for a European tour, a British film crew is there to catch all the priceless Young@Heart rehearsals in this touching, inspirational documentary of the same name.

Young@Heart begins with a group practice, where they prepare a batch of new songs. The group plugs their ears when their young(ish) director, Bob Cilman, first plays the atonal “Schizophrenia” by Sonic Youth. The first run-through is a disaster. They move on to “I Feel Good” by James Brown and are much more receptive to a song they have actually heard before, but they still can’t quite get the line “I feel nice / like sugar and spice” down.

Like the first time the chorus hears a no-wave song, I was at first a little wary about this documentary. Old people singing cover songs together? That’s interesting? I’d rather call out Bingo numbers at a retirement home. The only similar thing that came to mind was the Kidz Bop compilations, where children make hit songs like “Float On” creepier than the twins in The Shining.

But it wasn’t long before the elders captured my attention not only by being more involved and energetic than most 20-somethings–even those in bands–but also by displaying a hopeful mortality on their sleeves.

Footage of Eileen, a 92-year-old widow, flirting with the camera crew is more than a little endearing.

The songs, also, aren’t just gimmicky re-creations of hits. They are chosen carefully, and like Johnny Cash’s covers on his American Recordings albums, the songs gain new meaning from the voices of the chorus.

So when the Young@Heart crew yells in unison, “I wanna be sedated!” the song ceases to appeal to those bored and disenchanted at the local high school. “Purple Haze” isn’t about drug use when the chorus is through with it. It’s about not remembering simple lyrics to a song, and the descending loss of other faculties that dwindle as the aging process advances.

The documentary itself is a little flawed. The quality of picture is bad, and the editing could have been better. But ultimately, film technique is irrelevant. Once the Young@Heart footage was shot, it became the chorus’ film. In any hands, other than those of the filmmakers who made it, this project would become better.

The film isn’t all hopeful, though. Toward the end, there are deaths among the chorus-as Joe said, their time was marked. But the group soldiers on, playing shows that same week.

In one of the final scenes, a choir member performs a dedication to his fallen peers. With oxygen tubes running out of his mouth, he belts out a soulful rendition of Coldplay’s “Fix It.”

It’s an emotional moment. I never thought I’d be crying with a roomful of strangers while listening to a Coldplay cover.

Thanks, Young@Heart.