July 30, 2008

Movie Review: Entertainment @ It's Best

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As the Piano Man himself once said, “only the good die young.” Just don’t tell that to Eileen Hall, Stan Goldman, Fred Knittle or any of the other twenty-three members of the Young @ Heart chorus. Under the gritty leadership of band director Bob Cilman, these 80 year-olds sing everything from Sonic Youth to James Brown. And although they have toured Europe and performed for royalty, Young @ Heart’s time in the spotlight truly arrived in their self-entitled documentary, in which the group prepares for a performance in their hometown of Northampton, Massachusetts. Bursting with life and uplifting in every way, Young @ Heart is a cinematic treat that … well … only comes around once in a lifetime.

The film begins on a high (and somewhat scratchy) note with a close-up on the teeth of 92 year-old Eileen Hall, the group’s oldest member, as she belts out the opening bars to The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” After this throat-wrenching introduction, we are given a behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lyrics, laughter and lifestyle of the Young @ Heart chorus, courtesy of director/narrator Stephen Walker and his melodious British accent. Footage from the group’s rehearsals are inter-cut with hilarious interviews and a few laugh-out-loud music videos (like The Ramones’ “I Wanna Be Sedated”) to deliver an unforgettable viewing experience that is sure to keep audiences laughing and tapping their feet. Between the singers’ remarkable energy and the occasional forgotten lyric or botched rhythm, the film seems a little like Cocoon meets American Idol.

Perhaps the true heart of the film lies not in the music, but in the performers themselves. While every member of the chorus was instrumental in the success of the group, there were certainly a few who managed to steal the show. Steve Martin, who Walker describes as having a “positively mind-blowing zest for life,” is shown next to his “Still A Sexy Beast” statuette in his home. Dora Morrow and Stan Goldman receive a fair share of the spotlight for their consistent inability to master the rhythm to James Brown’s “I Feel Good.” Fred Knittle, perhaps the most colorful person in the film, charms everyone with his baritone Johnny Cash-esque voice and magnetic personality. Eileen Hall never misses an opportunity to flirt, as she invited Walker and his crew into her bedroom and playfully asked them to inch closer to her. And practically every member of the chorus was responsible for their own share of laughs as they struggled to learn the words to the Pointer Sisters’ “Yes We Can Can.”

But not everything about Young @ Heart is music to our ears. The film experiences a harsh dose of reality as the chorus loses soloist Bob Salvini immediately before a performance at a local prison. Dedicating the “jailhouse rock” to their late friend, the chorus made the inmates laugh, smile and ultimately cry after their stirring rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.” Unfortunately, the cruelty of old age struck once more when the beloved Joe Benoit unexpectedly passed away shortly before the group’s big performance. Featured prominently on the poster for their show in Northampton, Joe was one of the icons of Young@ Heart. The news of his sudden death sent a discernable sigh throughout the audience and added an element of poignancy to the film, giving the chorus members yet another reason to sing.

But they did more than just that. Their performance, called “Alive and Well,” was both a joyful celebration of Young @ Heart and a somber tribute to its missing members. They sold out the Academy of Music Theater in Northampton, as people lined up for hours just to get a ticket in the door. When the curtains came up, Young @ Heart delivered a performance that was bittersweet and inspiring. They impressed everyone with “Yes We Can Can” and brought the house down with their dynamic version of “I Feel Good.” But the highlight of the performance, and probably of the whole film, came during Fred Knittle’s chilling solo of Coldplay’s “Fix You”, a song originally intended to be a duet with Fred and Joe. With tears literally streaming down his face, Fred not only provided the most emotional moment of the film, but he captured the true spirit of Young @ Heart. As the tag line of the film said, “Rock and roll will never die!” After their final bow, Young @ Heart was serenaded to an uproarious standing ovation from the home crowd. And given the emotional roller coaster ride that the film was, it’s no surprise that moviegoers would erupt in a similar applause. At the risk of sounding like the trailer, it is one of the best feel-good movies in my recent memory. With audiences everywhere singing its praises and feverishly running home to look up more of the group’s performances on YouTube, Young @ Heart truly is a film for all ages.