Friday, March 02, 2007

Smells like teen spirit

How appropriate that, as I write this, The Long Blondes' Kate Jackson is busy declaring "You'll never be 19 again". Perhaps not, but Stephen Walker's 'Young@Heart' suggests that youthfulness isn't simply a matter of age; on the contrary, it's a state of mind.

Walker's brilliant documentary film takes as its subject the Young@Heart Chorus, a group of pensioners based in Northampton, Massachusetts who have performed their own unique takes on rock classics like 'Purple Haze' to the delight of both American and European audiences. Filmed over a six week period, it traces their preparations for a new concert, which involves learning a clutch of unfamiliar songs including The Pointer Sisters' fiendishly complex 'Yes We Can Can', James Brown's 'I Feel Good' and - perhaps most remarkably - Sonic Youth's 'Schizophrenia'.

That the songs the chorus performs are chosen quite deliberately for the effect created by having them sung by a bunch of pensioners is most evident with the likes of David Bowie's 'Golden Years', The Ramones' 'I Wanna Be Sedated' and The Clash's 'Should I Stay Or Should I Go' (sung by Englishwoman Eileen Hall, 92 at the time of filming), all of which take on new richer significances.

In truth, though, it's the chorus members who are the real stars, not the songs - a colourful cast of characters indeed. Their number includes: unfeasibly sprightly and proudly sexually active ex-Marine Steve Martin; culture vulture Stan Goldman, whose mouth hangs open in disbelief when he first hears 'Schizophrenia'; memory man Joe Benoit, capable of learning whole songs in an afternoon; his friend and opposite Lenny Fontaine, a keen cyclist with a marvellous chuckle in whose mind lyrics mysteriously erase themselves when he's at the mic; and Dora Morrow, whose rendition of 'I Feel Good' has a good deal more life about it than the Godfather of Soul's did in his latter years.

The man responsible for choosing the songs is Young@Heart founder and director Bob Cilman, who comes across like a less head-in-the-clouds, more grounded Wayne Coyne. It soon becomes clear that though the chorus members are enthusiastic and committed, they still need a strong guiding influence, and that's what Cilman provides, encouraging and cajoling when necessary, refusing to patronise those with whom he is working.

As might be expected, the ride is not a smooth one, with laughter and tears in equal measure along the way, but they make it through in the end. In the process, they manage to make 'Schizophrenia' their own (compare with the original), but it's Coldplay's 'Fix You' as performed by Fred Knittle - an 82-year-old who suffers from congestive heart failure and relies upon an oxygen pump - that steals the show.

Thanks once again to Alison for insisting that I see it, and holding me to it. I wasn't disappointed.

1 comment:

Ian said...

I'd seen "Schizophrenia" on YouTube before - truly an awesome sight, and good for them.