Young @ Heart begins with a rousing version of Should I Stay or Should I Go. It’s as loud and unruly as the original by The Clash but instead of four punks pounding out the tune here we have a choir whose average age is north of 80. And you thought The Rolling Stones were old.
While most grand parents pass the day playing Cribbage and doing crosswords these old timers are on the road, belting out an eclectic mix of tunes, everything from James Brown’s I Feel Good to Schizophrenia by alt rock pioneers Sonic Youth and, appropriately enough, Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees to sold out audiences across America and Europe. “We went from continent to continent,” says singer Fred Knittle, “and then I became incontinent.”
Coming from their mouths the “put me in a wheelchair” line from I Wanna Be Sedated has a certain resonance not even the Ramones could bring to the song.
The opposite of a coming of age story– whose members range from 73 to 92 years old—Young @ Heart is a crowd pleaser that really draws you into the lives of the chorus members. For many of them the opportunity to sing with the choir is medicinal. “It’s good for your lungs and your body,” says one ripened singer, “you forget all about the creaky bones.” “It keeps the brain alive,” says another, “and if you don’t use it, you lose it.” More importantly for some of them, ravaged by ill health, it lifts their spirits and is a source of renewed dignity.
The film, which could have easily erred on the cute side, (the novelty of seniors singing rock songs could outstay its welcome quickly), instead rings with real emotion as we get involved in the lives of the singers. We learn of one member who endured six bouts of chemo in four years and yet never missed a show; a testament to the rejuvenating power of giving these people something to look forward to which makes them feel useful.
The playful tone of the first half of the film—with scenes of the elders trying to figure out which side of a disc goes face up in the cd player, the shiny side or the printed side—shifts when several members of the choir undergo health issues. By the time of their big show death has touched the choir and in a heartbreaking climax Fred Knittle, an 80-year-old retiree suffering from congestive heart failure, sings a touching version of Coldplay’s Fix You for a fallen friend. As his baritone voice caresses lines like “When you lose something you can’t replace, When you love someone, but it goes to waste, Could it be worse?” the words takes on a deeper hue born out of tragic experience. Later when a seventy-seven-year-old sings “All we’ve ever had is now,” courtesy of The Flaming Lips, it speaks to the fragility of human existence, but is also life affirming. These men and women are embracing the right now and bringing generations of experience to every word that comes out of their mouths.
Young @ Heart is an uplifting documentary which is simultaneously hilarious and heartbreaking as it deals with the consequences of age from those who refuse to act their age.