Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Not Fade Away

One afternoon at his office at Stanford University, neuroscientist Robert Sapolsky noticed that his student assistant listened to an unusually diverse mix of music — Sonic Youth, Woody Herman, Gregorian chants. Sapolsky wondered why he, at age 40, still clung to the music he liked in college.

He conducted a study that concluded that there is a “window of opportunity” to develop tastes in things like music, food and fashion, and that this window closes as we age. The window for music, Sapolsky determined, closes at 35. He discussed these conclusions in
The New Yorker and on NPR, giving reassurance to the graying crowd whose tastes remained frozen in the Big Band or Beatles eras.

But sociological studies beg to be contradicted. Consider as counter-argument
Young at Heart, an inspiring documentary by British director Stephen Walker. The film’s subject is Young at Heart, a Northampton, Massachusetts chorus composed of senior citizens, average age 81, who are known for their enthusiastic performances of songs by the Clash, Sonic Youth, Coldplay, Radiohead, the Ramones, David Bowie, Talking Heads, James Brown and other artists far afield from the music of their youth.

The choristers admit that their preferences are in other genres. Walker asks what music they like, and they reply “classical” “opera” or “musicals.” When chorus director Bob Cilman, a relative youngster at 53, introduces a new song at rehearsal, the singers sometimes register their distaste by putting their fingers in their ears. Cilman has the strange idea to have the oldsters sing Sonic Youth’s blistering “Schizophrenia.” Walker asks, “Do you think they will like it?” “No,” Cilman says knowingly, but he pushes on anyway. Gradually, the singers warm to the song and perform it beautifully in the concert that climaxes the film.

The chorus evolved from a group of seniors performing vaudeville tunes at a senior meal center in 1982. Branching out with Manfred Mann’s “Do Wah Diddy,” the group eventually grew into a phenomenon under Cilman’s demanding tutelage (“He chews nails and spits rust,” says one chorus member). The group is enormously popular in its hometown, where its concerts sell out, and has even toured Europe. The singers are uncommonly dedicated, rarely missing a rehearsal even while suffering massive health problems.

Walker’s affectionate portrait follows the group through rehearsals for a big concert in Northampton. Among those we meet are Joe, 76, and Dora, 83, who rehearse a duet of James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” featuring a zesty “Whoo!” by Dora. The duet is problematic; Joe can get the rhythm but forgets the words, and Dora has the words but can’t get the rhythm. “This is gonna be excellent,” Cilman quips, “but it may not be until the year 2009.” By concert time, the number more or less comes together. The singers also struggle with Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” which features the word “can” 71 times. “Them words are too hard to put together!” Dora complains, but ultimately they bring down the house with the New Orleans number.

The most surprising revelation is not that the oldsters sing rock and punk music, but that they sing it so well; what they lack in vocal strength they more than compensate for with seasoned intelligence. Performing the choreographed numbers onstage and in the movie’s entertaining music videos, they are surprisingly dynamic. The oldest member, 92-year-old British Blitz survivor Eileen Hall, gives an authoritative spoken-word delivery of the Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” She can’t recall the name of the group who recorded the song (“Er…Crash?”), and yet her marvelous performance would surely have pleased Joe Strummer.

The film is moving without being too sentimental. Inevitably in a group of old people, there will be health issues, and during the course of the filming two members die. Their friends grieve abundantly and soldier on, performing in tribute to their fallen comrades. Their energy and endurance carry a potent message, nowhere more evident than when the chorus performs at a local prison, where the inmates are visibly moved, some to tears, by the elders’ triumphant rendition of Bob Dylan’s “Forever Young.”

Originally published in the Cleveland Free Times.

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