And actually, 80 is merely the average age of the members of Young at Heart, which means that some of them are younger than that ... which means that some of them are barely older than, say, Keith Richards or Paul McCartney, whose songs are exactly the kind of thing the chorus would perform, in their own uniquely harmonic way. Which becomes an ironic undertone to British documentarian Steven Walker's theme: that "age" -- in that euphemistic way the word is used to mean "decrepitly ancient" -- is all a matter of perspective. We might allow ourselves some shock when smacked in the face with exactly how advanced in years some of our legendary rockers have gotten, but it seems like a stretch to call them "elderly." So why do we apply the term to others?
Walker explains that he attended a Young at Heart concert in England and was so enraptured with the Massachusetts-based group that he was moved to make a film about them. Originally destined for British TV, Young@Heart has a kind of cozy television quality to it: It plays like a human-interest news report, with Walker's own enchanted narration betraying an utter lack of journalistic distance ... and thank God for that. He's in love with these people. Eileen, 92, an absolute pip and an incorrigible flirt, enjoys belting out songs by the likes of Coldplay and Sonic Youth because it "keeps her brain going." (The film opens with her performance of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go?" -- and I challenge anyone to resist singing along with her.) Bob, who prefers opera and classical music, takes on the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime" and James Brown tunes because, he says, "I'm trying to expand my horizons."
Bob Cilman, the chorus's director -- himself a mere child in his early 50s -- is a bit of a taskmaster, the chorus seems to agree, and they're not always thrilled with the songs he chooses for them. (For much of the film, they're struggling to conquer Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia") But Cilman, too, is a wonder, refusing to give in to the all-too-prevalent attitude that the elderly must be babied and coddled. He pushes them to push themselves and they're happy to comply.
Of course, the Young at Heartsters are of a certain age, and no one here denies that: not Cilman, not the singers, not Walker. As the film reaches its climax, two former members of the chorus return after long illnesses to perform at a special performance. It soon becomes clear that there's a point beyond which the mind, no matter how willing, cannot keep up with the body. So there's sadness here: Do what ya gotta do, because your days are numbered. But even that kind of sadness cannot dent the joy of Young@Heart. (Rated PG)