Stephen Walker's documentary about Northampton, Massachusetts' Young At Heart senior-citizen chorus begins with a wince, as 92-year-old Eileen Hall recites the words to the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" while Walker repeatedly cuts away to excited faces in the crowd. But rather than an awful, cutesy look at the kind of "Rockin' Grannies" seen only in Cocoon or diet-soda commercials, Young at Heart is a moving tribute to music and mortality that succeeds greatly on its own unusual terms.
Inevitably, there are some jokes about these senior citizens' bewildered reactions to the funk and rock-and-roll numbers they'll have to perform, which are cannily chosen by chorus director Bob Cilman. But the chorus members have a sense of humor about their often ridiculously artsy source material: After listening to Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" and singing along to it, one septuagenarian hits her mark and wails in mock-delight, "Oh, a note! A note!"
Interestingly, the chorus often transforms the songs more than the songs transform them; their interpretations often give the lyrics unexpected grace and dignity. David Bowie's "Golden Years" is reborn as a post-retirement anthem, and oxygen-tank-wearing Fred Knittle's interpretation of Coldplay's "Fix You" is as definitive as Aretha Franklin's version of Otis Redding's "Respect." The film is a ruthlessly efficient tearjerker as well: Not even an enthusiastic, off-key reading of "I Feel Good" can completely dispel the ever-present specter of death.
Opening Friday, May 16th, at Ridgeway Four