Burn After Reading

Documentary film starring The Young@Heart Chorus. Directed by: Stephen Walker
Running Time: 108 mins
Rated: Rated PG

The power of music to heal, bring people together, and transform lives is well known. Two films made in 2004 were revelatory in portraying this: Gérard Jugnot's Les Choristes, about the rehabilitation of orphans and young delinquents in a reform school in France, and Kay Pollack's As It Is In Heaven, set in a remote village in Sweden.

Last year, ABC Television screened the moving five-part documentary series Choir of Hard Knocks, which followed the creation and huge success of a community choir forged from homeless and disadvantaged people in Melbourne. Now comes Young@Heart, a documentary made by British filmmakers about an American choir formed from elderly men and women whose ages range from 81 to 92, which is just as powerful and compelling.

The Young@Heart Chorus was founded in 1982 by Bob Cilman in a Senior Citizen's centre in Northampton, Massachussets. Twenty-five years on, Cilman is now Executive Director of the North Hampton Arts Council. But he is still Young@Heart's director, and the driving force behind the chorus' success and appeal both in America and overseas.

BBC/Channel Four filmmakers Sally George and Stephen Walker saw the current ensemble of 24 members perform in London in 2005, and were so impressed by the group's energy and musicality that a year later, over a six-week period, they followed the Young@Heart Chorus as they rehearsed together and practised solo in their homes, for a one-off performance in their home town.

The result is a moving, non-sentimental journey that breaks down preconceptions about old age, and what the elderly have to offer the community at large.

Young@Heart begins with 92-year-old English-born Eileen Hall belting out The Clash's punk-rock classic 'Should I Stay or Should I Go' to a packed, enthusiastic audience at their sold-out concert, and the group's ostentatiously groovy name (no doubt considered 'hip' in the 80s) belies their groundbreaking ability to communicate and bring fresh meaning to a repertoire that cheekily includes the Ramones 'I Wannabe Be Sedated', David Bowie's 'Golden Years', Sonic Youth's 'Schizophrenia', and the Bee Gees 'Stayin' Alive'.

The most emotional sequence in the film is Young@Heart's performance in the grounds of a New Hampshire prison, in front of inmates who are initially sceptical about the choir's musical ability or relevance, but won over by the group's vitality and compassion. The sequence is genuinely uplifting. There are marvellous moments too, when Cilman, a hard taskmaster who knows exactly how far the chorus can be pushed, almost concedes defeat in the learning of new songs, such as Allen Toussaint's tongue-twister, 'Yes We Can Can', and James Brown's 'I Got You (I Feel Good').

Fred Knittle, overweight with a punishing wit, gives a velvety rendition of Coldplay's 'Fix You', while Eddie Marritz's camerawork is naturalistic and often grainy, interspersed with carefully choreographed MTV-style music videos that aptly juxtapose the elderliness of the performers with a hyper-cool medium that belongs quintessentially to youth.

But the real value of Young@Heart comes from the cinema verité development of the storyline, which sees the ensemble forced to come to terms with the unexpected (but perhaps not completely unsurprising) deaths of two of their most beloved and talented performers: Bob Salvini, who had recently returned to the chorus as had Knittle, and stalwart Joe Benoit.

Young@Heart transcends mawkishness and cliché because it teaches through example that although in the theatre of life, death waits in the wings of all our performances, so is our capacity and need to empathise, make music with others, and spread joy.

Rialto Out October 16

Mrs Jan Epstein is an associate of the Australian Catholic Office for Film & Broadcasting.

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