The Young@Heart Chorus is a 24-member singing group from Northampton, Mass., average age 80, who spend a chunk of their golden years touring the world and singing covers of songs from groups like the Talking Heads, the Clash and Coldplay. It's safe to say that the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" has never had a more heartfelt rendition.
This may sound like a suspect enterprise, a musical gimmick impossible to embrace, but the reality is otherwise. For what the members of this uncanny chorus lack in pure ability they make up for in irrepressible spirits and a desire to simply have fun. It's as much of a heady tonic for these folks to take on these unlikely lyrics as it is for us to watch it all go down.
Of course, when you're of a certain age, learning rock lyrics is not always easy, and we look on as the group members scrutinize words with huge magnifying glasses and hold their ears as they listen to the loud originals.
But, under the firm-but-fair direction of Bob Cilman, who's led the group for 25 years, these troupers slowly but surely rise to the occasion, delighted to have a purpose in life and as willing to have fun in the process as people one-quarter their age.
Directed by Stephen Walker, "Young@Heart" the film is similarly slow getting going. Walker, a British TV documentary maker, narrates the film himself, and his overly chipper voice-over initially borders on being intrusive.
But when the chorus starts to sing, when, for instance, animated 92-year-old former war bride Eileen Hall rips into the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," none of that matters. Just as eye-popping are the videos for songs like David Bowie's "Golden Years" and the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive" that veteran independent cinematographer Eddie Marritz shoots with a gleeful energy.
The frame of "Young@- Heart" is a seven-week rehearsal period during which the chorus is expected to learn some difficult stuff, including Sonic Youth's unsettling "Schizophrenia" and Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," which uses the word "can" a memory-challenging 71 times. For a group whose members have trouble remembering the words to James Brown's "I Feel Good," this is quite an undertaking.
Alternating with rehearsal footage are home visits where we learn something of the personalities and the back stories of the choristers. This is especially effective when Cilman decides to bring back two former members who left because of declining health but are now well enough to rejoin.
With an organization whose members are this old, the question of mortality is bound to come up, and that turns out to be one of the shocks as well as one of the graces of "Young@- Heart." When the chorus sings Bob Dylan's "Forever Young" to an audience at Hampshire Jail at a particularly emotional moment, many of the inmates are literally moved to tears.
What we learn is that the age of these singers is not some glib contrivance but the heart of the matter. In a culture that venerates youth and considers aging the worst of all fates, to see these men and women having the time of their lives near the end of their lives couldn't be more refreshing. We want these wonderfully alive people to go on singing forever, most of all, perhaps, because we know there's no way they can.
"Young@Heart." MPAA rating: PG, for some mild language and thematic elements. Running time: 1 hour, 48 minutes. In limited release.