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Courtesy of Fox Searchlight Pictures

Young @ Heart

Film about a seniors' choir gives new meaning to old, familiar songs

By Patricia Clarke

Directed by Stephen Walker
(Fox Searchlight Pictures)

Take two dozen seniors, white hair or no hair, stiff knees, canes and oxygen tanks. Put them in a choir called Young@Heart. And when they start to sing, discover you’re never too old, and it’s never too late, to rock ’n’ roll.

This seniors’ choir doesn’t sing Down by the Old Mill Stream. It belts out rock and punk classics by groups that most octogenarians have never heard of: Coldplay, Sonic Youth, the Rolling Stones (those other geriatrics), the Flaming Lips. The result is the most heartwarming celebration of the joy of life you’re likely to see this year.

In this 110-minute documentary, Stephen Walker, a British filmmaker who saw the Massachusetts group perform in London (“We sang on every continent till I got incontinent,” one member quips), follows them as they prepare for a concert. Their average age is 80, ranging from 73 to 92, but to watch them is to realize that age is just a number. There’s Dora, 83, the one up dancing, and Eileen, a 92-year-old flirt who gave up striptease two years ago, and Stan who has a bad back and Joe who has survived six bouts of chemotherapy.

If it sounds as if the film might be condescending (“Aren’t these old folks cute!”), sometimes Walker leans that way. In fact, the film is most successful when he gets out of the way and lets the singers speak for themselves. Like Joe Benoit, who is 86. “That’s what my life is now: singing. Keep on singing — that’s the key.” Benoit dies during the filming, still singing to the end.

The words of songs that may be familiar have a new meaning when sung by people at the end of their lives. All We Have Is Now, the Flaming Lips song, is heartbreakingly appropriate. Fred Knittle draws tears when he sings Coldplay’s Fix You in tribute to his friend Bob Salvini, who also died during the filming. And the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive becomes a song of survival, crying out a refusal to go gentle into that good night.

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