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Stayin' Alive 

Mel Brooks long ago recognized the rich vein of humor in using the elderly to reverse expectations. In Blazing Saddles, he zeroes in on an aged grandmother to elicit a comment about the local pastor. "What an asshole!" she proclaims. Jim Abrahams and David and Jerry Zucker mined the same ore in Airplane when a 65-year-old Barbara Billingsley (Beaver's mom) was the only person on board who could speak "jive" to a black passenger. This strategy of the unexpected is certainly what drives the performances of the choral group Young at Heart, an assembly of singers in their seventies, eighties and nineties who belt out rock tunes from the likes of the Clash, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, James Brown and Bruce Springstein — music we associate with rebellious youth rather than golden age. When I first heard of Stephen Walker's documentary about the chorus, I thought, what a hoot. But watching the film summoned more complicated reactions, many positive, some not so.

Young at Heart was started in 1982 by the Arts Council of Northampton, Mass., as a communal activity for retired people. It has been directed from the beginning by the council's current executive director, Bob Cilman, a gifted vocal musician, now 53, and under his leadership Young at Heart has achieved a vast reputation, performing all over America and touring Europe most summers. The members of the chorus, ever changing as infirmity and death take their toll, are passionately devoted to the group and to each other. They rehearse once a week year round, three times a week as they prepare a new concert, and every day immediately before a performance, which typically draws sold-out audiences. All of this is warm and bracing, and seeing the enthusiasm and dedication of the choral members makes you smile.

Nonetheless, there's something a tad uncomfortable at work, and the viewer starts to feel it in the film's opening passages. The voices aren't nearly as strong as we anticipate. And the singers don't seem entirely in on the joke. When questioned directly, they state their preferences for classical music, opera and show tunes. It's one thing if they see the twist in a 90-year-old's belting out the lyrics from a punk-rock anthem, and another thing altogether if they're taking themselves seriously. In short, though Cilman doesn't seem an uncaring person, at times he seems more devoted to the success of the Young at Heart concept than he is to the aged people under his musical direction. Having an eightysomething black woman scream out James Brown's "I feel good," in a duet with a seventysomething Jewish man with a spinal condition that makes him barely able to stand is funny only as long as the singers are consciously making fun of their own declining conditions, and it's not clear that they are.

At its most troubling, Young at Heart hints at something like a freak show. And that circusy aspect is made worse by Cilman's determination to place himself, ring-leaderlike, center stage at every performance. Fred Knittle is so ill with heart disease that he's no longer a full-time member of the chorus, but Fred is also one of the few members who can really sing, even though he has to do so sitting, with an oxygen tank at his side and air tubes running into his nostrils. Knittle provides a knockout performance, but he's forced to do so with Cilman kneeling, pointlessly, at his side. In short, a more gracious director would prepare his players for their moment in the spotlight and then allow them to stand in it alone.

I happily concede that both the film and the chorus win you over as you get to meet the people in the group. Eileen Hall, 92, is a ball of delightful sass. Stan Goldman, painfully disabled physically, is as lucidly intelligent as any man in his prime. Joe Benoit seems a poster boy for the expression "salt of the earth." Bob Salvini is an inspiration to us all in his determination to stave off death from heart disease long enough to sing one last duet with Knittle. And Knittle is an inspiration as well. His days are numbered, and he knows it, but his stream of jokes flow nonstop, a defiant refusal to surrender one celebratory moment of life. Then, when Knittle sings Coldplay's "Fix You" alone, if you are not moved, you are not just not young at heart, you are without a heart at all.

click to enlarge Bob Cilman leads the Young at Heart choir of senior citizens during rehearsal. - 2008 TWENTIETH CENTURY FOX
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