Proof: You Can't Be Too Old To Rock On

The Young @ Heart chorus members, now appearing in a new documentary; rock 'n; roll, R & B, senior citizens, singers,
Fox Searchlight/Timothy White
Can you EVER be too old to sing rock music? David Edelstein is back from a new movie that answers that question:

Steven Walker's documentary "Young @ Heart" chronicles the laborious rehearsal period of a touring senior citizen chorus - septuagenarians, octogenarians, even nonagenarians - who sing songs by Talking Heads, Springsteen, even the Ramones.

"Twenty-twenty-twenty four hours to go …. I wanna be sedated …"

The songs seem thunderously incongruent, for reasons you'd imagine. Rock-and-roll was key to the youth culture wave of the second half of the twentieth century: You weren't supposed to play it past your 30th birthday.

That's changed, obviously - the Stones are pushing 70. But most of these numbers have a driving backbeat. They channel, they celebrate energy, hedonism, even ecstatic self-destruction … whereas some of these people can barely sing for the fluid in their lungs.

At first I was uncomfortable, even angry, at how "Young @ Heart" presented its chorus members, who frequently screwed up the melody and lyrics.

I thought the chorus director Bob Cilman treated them almost like kindergarteners. There was something almost hostile about making them endure Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia."

But midway through, I realized I'd been unfair to Cilman. A spirit more profound began to permeate the film. There is no condescension in the handling of Fred Knittle, a titanic soul with a voice that's as deep and strong as his body (after a cardiac arrest) is precarious. Knittle has become a YouTube sensation with his moving version of Coldplay's "Fix You."

The songs Cilman has chosen begin to seem more and more appropriate, even inspired. The group performs for prisoners near their Massachusetts base, shortly after getting the news that a beloved member has died. The music takes over; the joy of performing is transcendent.

(Fox Searchlight/Jeff Derose)
But I don't want to sound like a kindergarten teacher myself. Isn't it marvelous they're so old and singing keeps them young? It's not grading on a curve to say the "Young @ Heart" chorus is passionately beautiful. Their music harkens back to the roots of rock, to R&B and blues, to the triumph of art over pain and loss.

Watching this great documentary, you want to paraphrase Dylan Thomas: "Do not go gently into that good night; Rock, rock against the dying of the light."

For information on "Young @ Heart," visit the film's official Web site at Fox Searchlight.