Young@Heart opens with a poker-faced performance of the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" that's delivered by an adorable 92-year-old with white whiskers on her chin and an English accent so adorable that it's almost crippling. And thus the gauntlet is thrown before the credits have finished rolling: If you don't find grandpas and grandmas singing punk rock songs intrinsically cute and endearingly absurd, this probably isn't the documentary for you. If you do, Young@Heart is somewhat uplifting, essentially innocuous, and only slightly infuriating if you stop to realize how blatantly your heartstrings are being yoinked.
For several weeks, filmmaker Stephen Walker followed the trials of Young@Heart Chorus, a Massachusetts-based singing group aimed at seniors, as it prepared for an upcoming concert. (Walker is blessed, if that's the word, with the kind of smarmy voice that makes you wonder if we haven't actually wandered into a Christopher Guest movie by mistake.) Young@Heart has been operating for two decades, performing material that ranges from "I Wanna Be Sedated" to "Nothing Compares 2 U" to "Purple Haze"--in other words, songs that are entirely alien to these septuagenarian (and up) opera fans.
Their repertoire comes thanks to young--at 53--chorus director Bob Cilman, and it's never revealed what prompted the shift from standards to punk and funk, beyond Cilman thinking it'd be fun to have the wrinkled and rheumy sing "Life During Wartime." So Cilman's intentions seem earnest enough, but the documentarians adopt a tone that's often uncomfortably condescending, appearing to laugh at the chorus' members as often as with them. On the other hand, did we mention the movie features AARP members singing Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia"?
This exceptionally goofy conceit isn't really enough to carry a nearly two-hour documentary, and though we learn plenty about the members' life-threatening illnesses, we come away with little about their lives outside the chorus. The best moments are typically the smallest: congestive heart failure survivor Fred Knittle dictating his own eulogy with a wink, or delivering corny jokes to his doting wife; the friendship that develops between three members while carpooling together (the driver's the only one who can actually still see). These scant scenes are the only ones where Young turns its adorable ciphers into three-dimensional people, and it could have used a few more.
The filmmaker can't decide if he views the members ofYoung@Heart as inspirational figures or figures of fun, though probably more the former considering how excited they are to shovel cheap pathos down your throat. It's hard not to get a little choked up when frail Fred Knittle lumbers onstage with his breathing apparatus and delivers a ruminative, Johnny Cash-esque reading of Coldplay's "Fix You," dedicated to two members of the troupe who passed away during filming. It's also hard not to feel a little embarrassed for submitting to such shameless manipulation, a feeling that lingers around Young@Heart as a whole.