By Jeffrey M. Anderson
In the wonderful new documentary Young@Heart, a group of 70, 80 and 90-year-olds get together and perform songs by Sonic Youth, Coldplay, James Brown, The Clash, David Bowie, the Ramones and other contemporary bands. The troupe has been performing, under the direction of Bob Cilman, for decades, always to great response, though they're more popular in Europe than they are here. (They've performed for the King and Queen of Norway.) But when the film's director Stephen Walker first saw them perform live in London, he was dubious. That quickly gave way to unbridled enthusiasm, which is just how the film works its magic. It's the type of film that sometimes becomes a word-of-mouth hit, although converts won't want to talk too much about what happens; as you may guess, some of the singers don't have long to live and one or two of them don't make it to the end of the film. Stepping carefully around such topics, I recently spoke with director Walker, chorus director Cilman and singers Nora and Jack, in San Francisco.
Stephen, you've been pretty open about your initial reaction to the group.
Stephen Walker: Someone came up one day and said, "I've got two tickets to the Young@Heart Chorus; they're a group of people in their 70s, 80s and 90s that sing rock 'n' roll." And I thought, "Oh my God. What?" Which is the reaction that everybody has. We have to get the audience over that hump. Because once you're in there, it's a whole different ball game. People are converted when they see it and they become missionaries for the film.
I was, too. I went through that same process. When I went to see them in London, two things struck me straight away. The place was packed with people of every age group, but the majority was young. The second thing I wasn't expecting was how good they are. What they do is so extraordinary. They are able to change the meaning of songs that we know so well, because they, as old people, are singing it. "Should I Stay or Should I Go" is really about life and death, not just relationships. When two people who are both ill sing "Fix You," the Coldplay song, that's about something quite different, particularly when one of them has an oxygen tank and you can hear the clicking, the punctuation.
The movie revolves around an intense, six-week rehearsal period leading up to a show. Is that how it works in real life?
Bob Cilman: It's an unusual way for us to work. We don't put that kind of pressure on ourselves to learn songs in six weeks. We like to take time with music. So if there's anything that's kind of unnatural about the film, it was the process of trying to figure out something for six weeks, but what was good about it was hat we really worked hard for six weeks. And it feels good to work hard. There are songs we sing for years and years and years that never get good. It's the strangest thing that starts making a song good, where that little click happens. It's no longer that boring thing, but it's this really interesting thing. As you see in the film, certain songs never came to the same level as "Schizophrenia."
That song (by Sonic Youth) is one of my favorites. I was so happy to hear it in there!
Bob Cilman: I love that song. That was the song I was most proud of in that whole process, in a way. It really went on an interesting route.
"I Got You (I Feel Good)" also came together for the final show in a terrific way.
Bob Cilman: You know what's great about "I Feel Good"? I've got to give the filmmakers a lot of credit. They followed the process in an interesting way. The best part is that, when they're walking up to sing the song, it looks like they're going to their funeral. And all of a sudden, she hits that note and everything explodes. I never could have directed that.
I have to admit: when the movie opened on "Should I Stay or Should I Go," I wasn't sure how it would all work.
Bob Cilman: That's a really good point. It makes you nervous as to what's to come. And after you meet Eileen, it makes sense. And in the live shows, it's an encore. I wanted them to open with the sound of the oxygen tank that you hear in "Fix You." Just hear that sound and not have any explanation as to what it was. And then find out later what it was. But I'm not the filmmaker. It's not something that we figured out. It just came to us. I was listening one time and said, "What's that sound?" Oh, that's so good! We couldn't have created that instrument. That's the great thing about letting things be. There's just so much that happens that becomes the art.
What songs have stood the test of time?
Bob Cilman: Well, if you ask the chorus what their favorite is, it's going to be "Forever Young." They love that song. Somehow, for them, it's an anthem. A long time ago they used to do a really interesting version of Manfred Mann's "Do Wah Diddy Diddy" that worked really well with this 90 year-old woman, who was really deadpan on it. Some of the really good stuff coming from them right now is "You Can't Always Get What You Want" - beautiful version. And a song by the Flaming Lips called "All We Have is Now." Patsy, who sings "Nothing Compares 2 U" in the movie - which I think is one of the best moments - sings a version of Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees." And we're working on Tom Waits's "Pictures in a Frame." And the Beatles' "Don't Let Me Down." But "Should I Stay or Should I Go" was also a real anthem for them. You can get our CD at CD Baby.
Dora, do you have any favorite songs?
Dora: Whatever Bob tells us to sing, I learn it. I don't go out there and ask, "Can I sing this or can I sing that?" My son in law, he's the drummer. That's how I got in. He knew I could sing if I wanted to, but he didn't think I was going to sing James Brown.
I had to laugh when Bob plays Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" for you for the first time.
Jack: Oh, yeah. Stuffing the ears and everything. That happens a lot with songs he hands out. We say, "Oh... here we go again. Where does he get these from?" But he's the one who chooses the songs. We don't dare to suggest anything. But he has a great touch for it. He seems to know what we can handle and what will fit into the show.
Stephen, as the filmmaker, how did you get along with the singers?
Stephen Walker: One major mistake I made early on was with Stan Goldman. He was getting up to go somewhere and I said, "Are you OK? Do you need a hand?" I didn't know it, but I was really insulting him.
Over the course of this film, the troupe loses one or two members. Yet there doesn't seem to be any question as to whether or not to go on after a death.
Jack: Those people enjoyed life so much, we knew that they wouldn't want us not to keep enjoying life. So we said, "We'll mourn them, we'll say our prayers for them, we'll memorialize them, and we'll think about them when these songs come up." Because a couple of these songs are sung by other people now. When you hear it, you think, "Well, so-and-so sung it a little differently." We really feel they're really still there.
How did that amazing show with at the prison come about?
Bob Cilman: Well, I'd always wanted to go to the prison. I was really interested in it. I was thinking about who could most benefit from seeing Young@Heart. And I was thinking that the prisoners are in a unique situation where they go in and they're young or middle-aged, but they could be there for a long time, and by the time they get out, they're going to be much older people. They can get pretty depressed at the idea. And to see old people having a good time and speaking to them in a way, I just thought that that's gotta be a positive thing.
But I had no idea we'd have the impact that we did. I thought we would get away with it, but what we got was this incredible outpouring of emotion. And that was real. You see about two minutes of it, but it went on for an hour. We could have made a whole movie about that concert. When I first saw that scene, I almost died. I was so nervous that what I experienced was not going to come off in film, but it really did.
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