The documentary, originally filmed for British television, follows the elderly-only Young@Heart chorus group in Northampton Massachusetts during the six weeks of rehearsal they have leading up to a sold-out hometown show. While they’re put to task by way of their director, Bob Cilman, you see the numbers develop just as you get a feel for the range of personality in the chorus.
The film’s director, Stephen Walker, was first drawn to the group after seeing a show they performed in the UK.
“The most extraordinary thing about it was the power in these people’s voices,” he relays, “and that these were complete reinterpretations of very well-known songs, but when they came out of these people’s mouths everything was different about them.”
A 90-year old tackling “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by the Clash or “I Wanna Be Sedated” by the Ramones gives a whole new set of connotations to well-known works, an effect that is unavoidable given the context of the Young@Heart Performers. By setting the story within the music, Walker knew he had an entrance into larger themes.
“Trying to get anything about old people off the ground is really hard to do … but I sort of thought if we could tie it in to rock music; I wasn’t thinking pure documentary, I was thinking like rock opera, and I still think of the film that way.”
While Walker got the cameras rolling in Northampton in 2006, the chorus got down to business. According to chorus member Steve Martin (born 1928), the cameras weren’t much of a distraction, and the attitude was more one of “Get out of my face, we don’t have time, we need to rehearse.”
Still, there is a fair amount of funny grandma and grandpa moments, like when director Walker hitches a somewhat treacherous ride in an 80-something-year-old chorus member’s car to practice, or when the chorus struggles to memorize the words to “I Know We Can.”
The film would not exist if it weren’t for the work of the chorus’ director of 27 years, Bob Cilman, a mop-topped man in his 50s who is the creative force behind the chorus’ success. He has managed to keep up with the group for so long, because as he says, “It’s hard to find something that you like to do so much and want to do for that long. I never get bored with it.”
Additionally, his work with the chorus has put him into contact with some interesting personalities.
“I’ve met over a 100 people,” says Cilman. “I’m so lucky for the people who have walked through the door. There are a lot of amazing people out there who, in this context, are really interesting.”
And for these really interesting people, the fame and notoriety awarded by this film are just post-game treats. According to chorus member Steve Martin, “The film is like a comet, and it’s burning brightly, but our real schtick is live, real performances.”
Still, the attention awarded to the chorus can’t hurt.
“We hope that some of the embers that fall off that comet might allow us to live a little longer,” Martin says.
Young@Heart releases in select theaters April 9.