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Pete Townsend Was Wrong

The Kids of Young@Heart Are Alright

By Dave Nuttycombe

Talking About Their Childrens' Generation: The stars of Young@Heart. (Fox Searchlight)


The documentary Young@Heart, which opens on Friday, April 18, did not seem promising. A group of senior citizens singing Sonic Youth, the Clash, and other alt-rock classics? Surely a lose-lose situation. In director Stephen Walker's movie, we watch the members of Northampton, Mass.-based Young at Heart Chorus and their director, Bob Cilman, over a six-week period as they rehearse for an upcoming show. After a few initial chuckles at the apparent incongruity, the seniors' innate warmth, Cilman's seriousness-of-purpose, and Walker's deft editing combine to warm the viewer's heart. Apparently the motto that best captures the essence of rock'n'roll is not the Who's youthful insistence on death before aging, but Danny and the Juniors': It will never die.

Cilman, Walker, and three members of the chorus visited Georgetown's Ritz-Carlton Hotel recently to discuss the film (in separate interviews).

How do you choose the songs for the chorus?

BOB CILMAN: I was looking for a range of stuff. [James Brown's] "I Feel Good" was one we did a long time ago [with a different group of singers], so I was interested in bringing that back.

I was always interested in Sonic Youth because they live in our town. I was a little bit too old for Sonic Youth, although they're probably as old as I am. So I was just listening to a lot of their songs and "Schizophrenia" jumped out at me. More for the music than for the lyrics — although the lyrics turned out to be pretty interesting in a way. The woman I work with brought me [Coldplay's] "Fix You." The lyrics of that one are really perfect. "I Wanna Be Sedated" is a really easy song to do.

The people who stage our work brought "Yes We Can Can" to us and I loved it right away. I love Allen Toussaint and the Pointer Sisters, but I didn't think it was right for us. I thought it was too hard. We never really did get it that great. It's the last thing in the movie, but it was a frustrating song. It's just recently that we began doing it again. I think it's probably because of [Barack] Obama always saying, "Yes we can can." I said, "All right, let's go back to it." Actually now it's becoming good.

Sometimes you want to get it to here [raises hand over head], but it only gets to here [lowers hand to chest], and you get frustrated. Then, boom, something clicks and it takes off. The one song that really happened with in the film was "Schizophrenia." That song became much more interesting over that six-week time.

What you don't see in the film is what they ultimately do, which is musical theater. They stage this work. It's not just a concert. And they actually do know how to sing. You see them mucking up the songs, but they're just learning. So the quirky thing about this film is that they have this challenge of learning the music quickly — which is not necessarily the way we do things. We really take our time to learn stuff, and make the songs more nuanced the more we play with it.

The singer's voices are not exactly what you'd call professional.

We're not looking for divas. We don't want to hide age in any way. We have a CD and there are some people listening to the CD who don't know that they're old. But that's not something we aim for. Age is definitely a part of this thing and in America we hide the elderly a lot. We're not the least bit interested in that. We're [putting] it in your face in a way.

How did you get involved with the chorus?

It was 1982, and I was in a town that had been decimated in the '70s. It was one of those New England towns that was just not working at all, but was discovered by the artists in the area and they really took over. I was doing music with a band, I was working in a theater company, and I was the projectionist at the local movie theater. It was a great little life, but I wasn't making much money. Then somebody offered me a job working at a meal site for the elderly. It had health insurance. I was getting close to 30 and figured I ought to have health insurance.

[The chorus started] as a singalong and it grew. A year in, we started doing theater. Then we started doing these great collaborations, one with breakdancers, another with Cambodian performers.


I didn't think I'd enjoy listening to senior citizens sing "my" music.

LYNCH: Bob has a philosophy, with respect to making fun of any songs that we do — and that is never do that. For instance, he never changes the lyric, never changes the music, never changes the logic of the composer. What I say that what he does is — add the magic.

LARAREO: Before I joined, I actually saw them at the Academy of Music. I said, "Gee, these are elderly people (including myself), and look what they're doing, they're doing that younger generation stuff. And they're so good. I think I'd like to join them if I possibly can."

LYNCH: There are many songs we would have put in the movie, but they couldn't get the rights, or the rights were too expensive. One, I don't know which, wanted $5,000 — and that's before they thought the movie would go anywhere. It was going to be a little DVD [release].

It seems being a member of the chorus is also like joining a travel club.

LYNCH: We've made, last count, 14 tours of the world, including Hawaii and Melbourne, Australia, and many times to Europe. Our last times were three weeks in Ireland, and three weeks in France.

What is the theatrical part of the show that we don't see in this film like?

LYNCH: We do a Broadway-type show in Europe and elsewhere, not in the Northampton area. In Europe, we do an hour-and-a-half theatrical piece that includes costumes, costume changes, scenery, and makeup. So it's really theatrical.

Opera and classical seem to be the favorites of most chorus members. How did you convert to rock?

FONTAINE: We got brainwashed. This is the type of music I would turn off at home.

LARAREO: Our director would introduce these numbers to us, because he's going by the young generation.

LYNCH: "You shall enjoy the numbers I enjoy," is what he said.

LARAREO: It's a challenge, but then we like it after we do it two or three times.

Do you ever suggest songs to perform?

LYNCH: [Cilman] doesn't take suggestions.

FONTAINE: He says, "I'm a democracy. Any suggestions, let me know and I'll turn 'em down."


I was prepared to be annoyed at this film. I expected it to make fun of both rock and the old people.

WALKER: I had the exact same reaction. "Is this going to patronize me? Is this a gimmick, is this dancing-bear territory?" Once you're in the theater, you realize that's not what it is at all. [Producer and wife Sally George] said, "Keep an open mind. It's only one night." This was two years ago. So we went to see the show and it was just a knockout. The sound they make is great. One of the things about the film is you don't really see them at their best except in the music videos. What you otherwise see is them practicing for several weeks. So what you see at the Music Academy is good, but what you see in the music videos is much better, it's much more honed. It's a big sound, not karaoke.

What was most interesting was that the songs themselves — that I knew very well, 90 percent of them — had totally different meanings when they're sung by these people. The classic example, which is how I start the film, is "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" by the Clash, because it's about life and death. I remember coming out of that theater and thinking, "Christ, this is really interesting, because you could make a fantastic film about old age." And people don't do this. They don't touch this subject.

I could have watched an entire film of just the music video segments.

So could I. But you need a narrative. The film is a tradeoff between exploring the music, and a story that people will stay with. Also, I think there's something — for me, artistically — there's something powerful in the idea of using the videos to jump out of the classic documentary narrative and then go back into it again. My practice is to make those traditional, classic narrative-type films, whether it be drama or documentary. What I really liked about this was being able to move out of time. So one minute you're in a real old peoples' home and the next minute these people are singing "I Want To Be Sedated" in an old peoples' home. But also I love it because to me it's the perfect punk song. And suddenly these old people become punks. Because if you listen to how they sing that song, they're angry.

There is poignancy in the film — these are, after all, seniors, some in their 90s. We go on a journey with them, but they don't all make it.

I've sat through many screenings now, and at every single screening something quite extraordinary happens. People obviously are terribly moved. I think it's because there is something that everyone can identify. I mean, Sally's father died during the making of the film. She couldn't have been in a better place; it was like cattle surrounding their wounded, it was incredible. There are so many people I've spoken to after this film, younger people who've had their grandparents die, people my age, your age, who talk about their parents and grandparents who are very old and every time you say goodbye you think it might be the last time.

I've heard from a lot of people that the film speaks to them. That's nothing to do with me, by the way. Of course, I put it together. I spent months and months in the cutting room. I'm aware of my part in creating the story, and I'm not going to downplay that. But it's actually [the chorus members] and what they're doing that is making that happen.

How did you decide to focus on the rehearsal process rather than the full theatrical presentation that the group performs?

The reality is that the musical theater that they do would have been just too hard to film. The show takes a year to put together. And we were not going to film for a year in America. Also, in a way there's nothing to be done with that. The show I watched in London is great. But it's a finished product. What's more interesting to watch is the process of getting to a finished product.

The structure appeared to find a way of getting them to a big show in under two months. So we agreed that they wouldn't start hearing the songs for the fist time until we were there filming them. I'm quite pleased with how it worked out. And they didn't want cameras all around them on tour in Europe. What would you get? A lot of people in hotel rooms and getting on tour buses and then performing. There just didn't feel like there was much of a story there.

Obviously it's a fairly shallow narrative, but it was a narrative. Are they gonna make it? Is the song going to be OK? That was just my little thread. Under that were all the other things I wanted to explore, but I needed something that was going to get me from the beginning to the end.

Interview © 2008 Dave Nuttycombe