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Film: Stayin' Alive

A chorus of seniors interprets Rock classics in Young@Heart

By Steven Rosen · May 7th, 2008 · Movies
  Throw your hands in the air like you just don't care: the Young@Heart Chorus
Timothy White

Throw your hands in the air like you just don't care: the Young@Heart Chorus

Just before the film Young@Heart -- about a chorus of seniors, ages 73 to 92, who sings Rock & Roll songs -- opened in New York last month, music director Bob Cilman was cautiously optimistic about its reception.

"I'm curious about how this film will do because it's a hard thing to describe," he says by telephone. "It's a hard thing to convince people to go see. If you do go to it, you end up being moved more than you thought you would be."

Indeed, a synopsis of the documentary directed by BBC veteran Stephen Walker raises some red flags. Some two-dozen seniors from Northampton, Mass., led by Cilman, a younger and smart choir director with a bachelor's degree in American History from prestigious University of Massachusetts, Amherst, tackle songs by the likes of Bob Dylan, The Clash, Talking Heads, Coldplay, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, The Ramones and more.

The singers are not previously familiar with the songs -- they're of an older generation -- so the enterprise raises concern about exploitation. It also triggers the "excessive post-modern melancholic irony" alert: Oldsters doing songs like "I Wanna Be Sedated," "Golden Years," "Fix You" and "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" tend to make every tune a meditation on mortality.

Especially when the singer on that last one is a 92-year-old woman, the spunky Eileen Hall.

But whose meditation? Are the seniors in on the song's newfound profundity? Yes, says director Walker: "This isn't old people singing songs that have a meaning for a younger generation but they don't know," he says. "Everybody understands, and they really love it and embrace it. That's what makes it special. And they see the impact it has on the audiences as well."

The Young@Heart Chorus came together in 1982. Chorale groups in general are hugely popular among all ages -- there was a documentary a few years back, Cool and Crazy, about one featuring members of a remote Norwegian fishing village. Originally, Cilman's group did songs its members knew -- crooner standards from the pre-World War II era. He also worked to give it a theatrical presence so the performances were like revues.

Relatively early on, the chorus interpreted a "Rock" song for the first time -- "Let It Be." It was done by a Polish American woman with a strong accent, Josephine Tylenda, in a version that has since become legendary in Young@Heart circles.

"It was hardly recognizable in lyric and somewhat recognizable in music," Cilman says. "You thought she was being given a divine right to sing it, like she was possessed. It had this spiritual quality. Everyone I knew who grew up with the song was moved by it because it was so weird and different. That gave us the idea that these guys could interpret these newer songs in an interesting way."

The first big Rock "hit" was a version of Manfred Mann's novelty-ish "Do Wah Diddy" at a 1986 AIDS benefit. The singer was in her late eighties and did a funny but rousing deadpan version.

"It was a real young audience and they raised the roof," Cilman recalls.

Since then, Young@Heart performances in Massachusetts and around the world have included Rock tunes. In the film, you can see Stan Goldman -- fighting spinal stenosis -- belt out Brown's "I Feel Good." Two older gentlemen, Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, work on presenting Coldplay's "Fix You." And there is much more.

Northampton, a pretty hip town in general (Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore and Kim Gordon live there), has nurtured the Young@Heart chorus. For instance, the town has an annual event called Transperformance, in which musicians do cover versions of songs.

"One year we did 'Look Punk' and took on the task of doing The Clash," Cilman says. "The group came out pushing carts and sang 'Lost in Supermarket,' which was fantastic. And we did 'London Calling,' 'Rock the Casbah,' and 'Should I Stay...'

"It wasn't until we started working on 'Should I Stay...' that it become obvious -- with Eileen getting old at the time -- that it took on a profound new meaning," he says. "Sometimes songs just strike you as having a new meaning, but that's not necessarily the reason why we start singing it."

Because this generation is too old to have grown up with Rock -- possibly the last one alive like that -- Cilman can have difficulty teaching them. The film shows the hard work, for instance, of getting chorus members enthusiastic about Sonic Youth's challenging "Schizophrenia."

"They're of the generation that really listened to lyrics," Cilman says. "When I was in a Rock band starting out, I learned everything but lyrics. You could always get away with mumbling -- nobody noticed. But for these guys, the lyrics are front and center. So for me, this has been an interesting journey in finding out what these songs are about that I've been singing all these years. I had no idea." ©

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