Sunday, June 15, 2008

Young@Heart and Other Reasons to Sing

Often when people explain why they don’t like musicals they say, “I just can’t believe people would just be talking one minute and then break out into song the next.” These same people might not be bothered by loud explosions in space in a science fiction film or a man shooting a six shooter accurately a couple of hundred yards away in a western or a miracle amphibious vehicle that allows its passengers to survive not one but three falls over large waterfalls. But spontaneous song is going just too far.
Maybe it’s because we live in a society that spends much money for concerts and downloads to enjoy the music of others while fewer people are making music of their own.
That’s not a problem for the members of Young@Heart, a chorus depicted in the documentary movie of the same name. In 1982 this chorus group, whose members are all 70 years old or older, was founded. Initially they performed vaudeville songs like “Yes, We Have No Bananas,” but their director, Bob Cilman, pushed the chorus to try something different: rock and roll.
Many of the chorus members had a preference for classical music, opera or the musicals of Rodgers and Hammerstein. But they were willing to take on the challenge of music by the Talking Heads, David Bowie and the Clash (or as the 92 year old member Ellie refers to them, “The Crash”.)
The new songs are not always greeted with good cheer. When Cilman is asked how he thinks the members will react to Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” he cheerfully says “They’ll hate it.” But when interviewed, the members insist that the challenge of new music keeps their minds and voices active and alive.
At times, though, I wondered how really new some to the music was to the members. The film was made in 2006. “I Feel Good” is introduced to the singers, and I was thinking that James Brown released that song in 1965. That means that chorus members in their 70’s were in their thirties when the song was released. When Mick Jagger is going to turn 65 this year and Paul McCartney just turned the same age, and Elvis would have been eligible to be in Young@Heart if he had lived, it makes one wonder if rock and roll can still be considered a young person’s game.
And at times during the film I wondered if the filmmaker (Stephen Walker) and the audiences don’t approach the chorus in a condescending manner (“Isn’t it cute those old people singing rock songs!”) But the group’s music is genuinely powerful. The music video of the group singing the Ramone’s “Sedated” is energetic and funny. Coldplay’s “Fixed” which was meant to be performed as a duet but becomes a solo is heartbreaking.
The members of Young@Heart have a unique understanding of the command in the Psalm 96:1 “Sing to the Lord a new song.” So many of us are content to listen to the oldies stations on the radio that play the music of our youth. In church, we want to sing only the songs we know. But that’s not what God wants for us. He wants us to sing a new song not just to keep our minds fresh but also our spirits.
Considering the age of the group members, it should not be a surprise that in the film we see the group struggle with greater challenges than tricky rhythms and lyrics. Illness and even death plays a role in this film as it does in the members’ lives. Their grace in facing life’s ultimate challenges will inspire the view even more than the film’s music.
Young@Heart is in theaters as I write this, but that might not be the case where you are so you may have to wait for the DVD of this PG rated film. You might want to put one or more of the following musicals on your library or Netflix list as you wait for it to be released:
Singing in the Rain (1952) Often called the greatest musical of Hollywood, it also is a very funny satire of Hollywood’s transition to talkies. Gene Kelly’s swing around the lamp post is one of the most joyous moments in cinema.
Swing Time (1936) All the films that Ginger Rodgers and Fred Astaire made together are worth watching, but the direction of George Stevens (director of Shane and Gunga Din) and the music of Jerome Kern (“The Way You Look Tonight”) make this my favorite.
A Hard Day’s Night (1964) The Beatles debut on the big screen was just plain fun. This is where MTV videos were born, but don’t hold that against it.
Fiddler on the Roof (1971) The story of a small Jewish village in Russia in the years prior to the Bolshevik revolution has wonderful music, dancing and humor. But I most cherish Topol’s marvelous depiction of Tevye’s relationship with God.
Once (2007) All the other recommendations are rated G. The winner of last year’s Best Song Oscar is rated R for adult language. The opening scene drops F-bombs with abandon and this continues throughout the film. But if you can make it past that, this is a very sweet film about a romance between musicians that is just not meant to be.
The great thing about musicals on DVD is that you can push the closed caption button and along. God does want you to sing. It’s never too early to start practicing for those heavenly choirs.

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