Documentary has ‘Heart’ to Spare

[8 May 2008]

By Bill Gibron

PopMatters Contributing Editor

Aging in America is its own prison, a metaphysical place where family members forget their loved ones because the stench of mortality is too great to bear. Even worse, because of horrific diseases like Alzheimer’s and dementia, the elderly are viewed moreover as ticking time bombs, burdens placed on relatives for reasons that are uncomfortable and unavoidable. It may seem like a trap, but the prison is more than reciprocal. So how refreshing is it to see a group of septa- and octogenarians expressing themselves in song as part of the community chorus. Even better, these good timing geezers use The Ramones, David Bowie, and Sonic Youth, as points of aural reference.

Thus we have the set up for the fantastic feel good documentary, [email protected]. Director Stephen Walker chronicles the preparations by the titular Massachusetts based choral for their latest world tour (that’s right - WORLD tour), using the various members as a starting point toward a greater understanding of how we age. From the moment we see Eileen Hall onstage, her bawdy British pepper-pottiness caressing the lyrics to the Clash classic “Should I Stay or Should I Go”, we know the juxtaposition of song to senior will be part of this movie’s main modus. It continues as various others wrestle with James Brown’s “I Feel Good”, and the Talking Heads “Life During Wartime”

And for the most part, we don’t really want much more. The rehearsal material is so warming, so undeniably uplifting and joyful that we need the occasional (and because of the subject matter, unavoidable) tragedy to keep us grounded. Since we get to know many of the faces here, their voices giving way to backstories loaded with compelling history, the pain we feel is as pure as the passion these oldsters have for performing. One of the most intriguing scenes in the entire film shows [email protected] overseer Bob Cilman growing tired of missed lyrics and off beat stumbles. The moment he threatens to cancel the tune, the entire chorus responds. Give them a chance, they chime in, they’ll figure it out. Watching them prove him wrong (or right) symbolizes everything that makes this movie so special.

There are other sentimental set-pieces as well, moments director Walker knows will leave the audience grasping for the nearest pile of handkerchiefs. When the group is invited to serenade a group of local prisoners, their jailhouse rendition of “Forever Young” is just devastating. Equally compelling is Hall, in her mid 90s, roaming the lobby of her nursing home as she prepares to leave for a gig. Given her own key by the facility, she’s like a breath of recognizable life in an institutional situation sadly lacking same. Of course, the entire narrative revolves around the return of Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, retired ex-participants. Both stricken with serious illness, they want to celebrate their friendship and time in [email protected] with a dynamic duet of the Coldplay song “Fix You”.

Though we’re hopeful that the men can pull this off (Knittle, while more or less immobile, seems far more capable), there’s an aura of finality that washes over the entire proceedings, making this documentary far more powerful on a personal level. Something similar happens with Joe Benoit, a World War II vet who has used up eight and a half of his cat-like nine lives. Because of the reality of what [email protected] stands for (these are people solidly in their 70s and 80s), we know that death is always around the corner. But their undying spirit, in combination with the timelessness of some great music, makes it hard for us to fathom - or face - their impending transience.

There are a few gaffs along the way, times when Walker should have pulled back on the ‘cute old coots’ conceit. Additionally, Cilman gets way to much screen time considering what he contributes overall. Sure, he’s called a task master and a hard to please perfectionist, but all of that washes away the second his participants charge up the scales. There’s a tiny bit of stage mother in the man, someone looking to parlay the success of someone else into his own personal import, but it’s a minor expression at best. Instead, what Walker does deliver is scene after scene of sound as celebration, people at the end of their allotted time taking one last drink from a melodious fountain of youth before shuffling off forever.

True, we really don’t get to know these people beyond a certain shorthand sketch (Joe - great singer, Fred - funnyman cut up), and when death finally does visit the group, it’s handled in an almost perfunctory, matter of fact dullness. Or it might just play this way since we want each and every member of [email protected] celebrated like the hero or heroine that they are. It’s why Knittle’s work with the Coldplay tune becomes a heart-wrenching masterwork, a brilliant combination of music, musician, and meaning. The auditory stars rarely align like this, but when they do, the results are rapturous.

While those in the chorus’ senior citizen demographic might not appreciate how prescient Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia” sounds coming out of a pair of aged old biddies, and won’t see the irony in a group of curmudgeons warbling “Staying Alive”,  [email protected] - the movie and the membership - understand exactly what they are doing. While it’s clear we’re looking at another stellar documentary destined to be left out come Oscar time (Walker began this project, and broadcast part of it, as a BBC television special in 2004), make no mistake: [email protected] is a classic. May we all live to be so youthful in spirit and soul.

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