Saw two movies in a row over the weekend, one in the theatre at the Rialto and one as a DVD at home. In fact, both of them were DVDs, as the smaller cinemas at the Rialto basically show their movies off DVDs onto a screen. Bit of a cheek really, charging you full price for that!
Anyway, that aside, the one we saw at the Rialto was Young at Heart. I’ve just been on the Net looking to see if I could find some background info about the choir that features in the movie, and there’s obviously quite a bit at the FoxSearchlight site – if I can dig my way through all the links. Might leave it till later since there are reviews and videos galore, with the choir hiving hither and yon, including, no doubt, going to places like Las Vegas (although I couldn’t see that when I searched).
The movie: it’s kind of a rough grainy doco, with a sometimes wavering camera (to make sure you know it’s being taken ‘live’ no doubt) but it would almost not matter what the director and cameraman did, these old folk take over the screen time after time. From the first full-in-your-face song to the poignancy of the last moments, when we learn that the same singer who opened the show has died since the making of the movie, this is a life-empowering, soul-engaging heck of a film. Not because it’s particularly well-made (though it probably hides its craft more skilfully than we realise) but because the people in it are just so endearingly alive. Mostly in their eighties, and full of aches and pains and all sorts of chronic illnesses, they come utterly alive when they start performing for an audience. There’s no holding them back. And some are so keen they’ll get up off their sickbed, practically, in order to make it to the show.
Only a few of them can actually sing particularly well – but it isn’t the professionalism of the singing that’s of interest here. These people sing from the heart, and communicate life to their audiences. The sense of spirit within their singing is so strong that they reduce young men a quarter their age to tears in the concert they do in a prison. And wondrously, that scene avoids all the worst things non-Americans dislike about Americans; for once there’s no performing for the camera by the prisoners. They’re engrossed in the singing to the extent that what they’re thinking and feeling is written all over their faces. I found this to be one of the most moving parts of the film.
The two deaths in the film are wrenching as well; two wonderful characters just don’t manage to make the final concert, two guys as different as possible but both with an enormous strength and a willingness to put their lives on the line to try and get through their illnesses. It must have been tough on the Bob Cilman, the choir’s director over the 25 or so years he’s been running it, to see one after another of his people die on him, often in difficult circumstances. Hard-nosed as he sometimes seems when working with the choir, he’s a softie at heart, and must have had his heart broken a number of times.
But the sadness is alleviated time after time with the wonderful humour, the kind of humour only people who’ve been through eighty years of life and grief can summon up. In scene after scene one of the ‘cast’ will drop a complete non sequiter into the conversation, leaving us laughing, or offer a throwaway line that beats anything the average comedian can do.
I’d love to see it again, even knowing that some of the cast don’t make it. They affirm life to such a degree that they make you realise that while growing old might make you look like that least attractive creature on earth, it’s what’s on the inside that counts.