Staying Alive

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There are tongues, but few like the bright red, fat and glistening one that spits out the lyrics to the Clash song “Should I Stay Or Should I Go?” and opens the film Young@Heart. If you’re thinking Mick Jagger, you’re only a half century off. This particular organ belongs to a 92-year-old, and its close-up is the snappy start to a documentary about the musical group of that name.

Directed by British filmmaker Stephen Walker, the film was first made for the England’s Channel Four, and has already won a number of awards, including the Audience Award for Best International Feature at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival. Like its subjects, it’s been around for awhile. They’ve been performing for 25 years and you have to be 70 to get in. And a lot of these senior citizens from Northampton, Mass., take their raison d'etre from being part of this chorus that has traveled worldwide to great acclaim.

A sentimental sing-along? More like in-your-face shock waves, the force of the film actually comes from—as the group’s musical director Bob Cilman must have divined when he came up with the music choices—the contrast between these 70- to 90-year-olds and their musical fare: rock and punk tunes. “It used to be My Fair Lady," says the 92-year-old, a bit wistfully at one point. Now it’s Coldplay and Sonic Youth, with an occasional R&B favorite thrown in.

The knock-out punch is the group’s delivery: angry punk lyrics suddenly seem more appropriate to old age than nihilistic youth, though off stage a nicer bunch you couldn’t imagine. Perhaps this is because they are from the “greatest generation” and carry on for the good of all, even when a member falls by the wayside (i.e. dies). Stoic at times, they make a telling contrast with the relatively young 52-year-old Cilman, who drives them hard but gets a little sappy on camera.

Like all “Let’s put on a show, kids” movies, some of the suspense comes from that effort, viewed in rehearsals. Here, it’s whether the geriatrics will remember the words, when to sing them, or even get to the gig. The movie begins and ends as a concert film, but it goes on the road, though just locally in Mass. Threaded together by car rides helmed by one of the few members with vision acute enough to drive, the most touching sequence is when Young@Heart, just after hearing of the death of one of their most beloved chorus members, performs for some visibly moved local prison inmates. The connection made is palpable: stuck in an old body, stuck in jail. And how to bust out.

Sure to be a hit not just with the AARP crowd, we’ll surely see a lot of the film’s ready-to-be excerpted videos: clever nuggets shot in hip nasty noir angles, or a send-up of a chorus member’s hugely filled Saturday Night Live white suit and a girl group back-up. “Staying Alive,” and as long as they can.

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