[email protected]'s overstatement is too bad, because the singers' stories are terrific, at once rebellious and sentimental, self-aware and affecting.

[email protected]

Director: Stephen Walker
Cast: Bob Cilman, Eileen Hall, Stan Goldman, Fred Knittles, Dora Morrow, Bob Salvini
MPAA rating: PG
Studio: Fox Searchlight
First date: 2007
US Release Date: 2008-04-09 (Limited release)

"Darling, you gotta let me know. / Should I stay or should I go?" The first song performed in the documentary [email protected] is auspicious. The film's titular subject, a group of senior citizen singers based in Northampton, Massachusetts, appears on a stage in full throat, their expressions serious, their bodies willing, their energies erratic. The fact that the median age in this chorus is 80 is daunting, but their commitment to the Clash’s song is infectious.

Following this surprising introduction, however, the film, directed by Stephen Walker, begins more earnestly. And he's apparently incapable of letting the singers and their dedicated founder and director, Bob Cilman, speak for themselves. This is too bad, because their stories are terrific, at once rebellious and sentimental, self-aware and affecting. They tour globally, singing a mix of numbers selected by Cilman -- ranging from classic rock to punk to versions of soul -- and as they work hard to make their own passions accessible for their audiences, they also share engaging life stories, not quite explaining their enthusiasm, but rather, offering it up generously, a gift.

Walker's film takes up the group's seven weeks of rehearsal for a show set to premiere in Northampton, such that it has a delimited time frame and, less fortunately, a structure leading to a tried and true climax: the performance for genuinely moved fans (indicated by the too instructive reaction shots). This format wouldn't be a problem, except that Walker explains every step and focuses frequently on his own reactions, as if these might guide the rest of us. "I find myself," he asserts at film's start, among a group of some 24 grandparents, except, he adds, "They're nothing like any grandparents I've ever known." It's not so clear how they are so very different from other "grandparents," except that they do sing Rolling Stones tunes in public. At the same time, the group members reveal throughout the film that they are not so different from other senior citizens as they are like them. Their "specialness" is the hook by which to extol their representativeness.

Walker's narration can be obvious and self-focused ("The next morning, I start my rounds with the chorus"), as well as corny. But if Walker's tactics tend to simplify and overstate, his subjects tend to elude categories and reductive descriptions, making [email protected] more provocative and less trite than its surface suggests. While the movie repeatedly shows "cute" old people struggling with complex rhythms or lyrics (Cilman describes Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can" as "one of those songs that's going to drive you insane over the next three weeks"), or invites you into their homes where they recall their pasts (92-year-old Eileen Hall survived the Blitz in London: "We used to sing songs like 'Yes, We Have No Bananas'"), it can't quite undermine their dignity and self-possession. "It was just health that made it impossible for them," Cilman says of singers who have had to stop or take a break. Their love of singing helps them to find community, identity, and purpose. As Eileen says, smiling, "It's all keeping your brain going. It's true, if you don't use it, you lose it."

The show on which they're working throughout the film includes some challenging numbers, including Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" (featuring and James Brown's "I Feel Good," which Cilman arranges to suit selected soloists 86-year-old Dora Morrow and 78-year-old Stan Goldman. As the group digs into the new set list, they run into frustrations and discover great joys. Bob Salvini, 75, jokes about the new show, "You know, this is gonna be excellent, but it may not be until the year 2009." Walker's camera roams over the rehearsal space, observing singers hard at work, faces frowning or nearly rapturous, and occasionally catching someone at some sort of rest, gathering energy for another go. Such moments are key, indicating the risks that some singers take in showing up for rehearsals. When, for instance, Bob "looks weak," Cilman, ever watchful of his artists, explains, "I don't want him doing anything that he's not capable of doing."

The film follows a few stories more closely than others, exemplary tales of perseverance or difficulty. Cilman also calls in a former group member, 81-year-old Fred Knittle, now suffering from congestive heart failure, laboring to breathe and attached to an oxygen tank. His lovely baritone voice appears largely unaffected by his illness, and he entertains with stories of his youth (how he met his wife of 54 years), silly jokes, and a lovely vitality. Charming and vivacious, Fred shows up at each rehearsal prepared to sing his duet, Coldplay's "Fix You," with his longtime friend and singing partner Bob Salvini, waylaid by spinal meningitis four years earlier.

Repeatedly, the singers reveal strength and vigor that surprise even them. When Bob has to take time off, Fred takes on his part in the duet as well, Cilman observes, "That's troopership, whatever you call it." The film both celebrates and underestimates such potency, most egregiously in a couple of "music video" sequences that set up the singers as "adorable" performers in glaring light and silly, fast-cut poses, as the soundtrack offers their performances of the Ramones' “I Wanna Be Sedated” and the Bee Gees’ “Staying Alive.” When the film documents the group's performance at a local prison, in preparation fro the climactic show, the lingering shots of inmates' emotional responses feel more cloying than poignant.

Such formal decisions are distracting, but again and again, events intrude, providing the documentary with a structure apart from Walker's intrusions. Some singers become sick and a couple of them die during the course of filming. These moments, though occasionally milked for sentiment by [email protected],yet indicate the rhythms of life and death, the performers' self-understanding, their appreciation of each moment they have and share with each other. At such points, the camera becomes incidental.





12 Essential Performances from New Orleans' Piano "Professors"

New Orleans music is renowned for its piano players. Here's a dozen jams from great Crescent City keyboardists, past and present, and a little something extra.


Jess Williamson Reimagines the Occult As Source Power on 'Sorceress'

Folk singer-songwriter, Jess Williamson wants listeners to know magic is not found in tarot cards or mass-produced smudge sticks. Rather, transformative power is deeply personal, thereby locating Sorceress as an indelible conveyor of strength and wisdom.

By the Book

Flight and Return: Kendra Atleework's Memoir, 'Miracle Country'

Although inconsistent as a memoir, Miracle Country is a breathtaking environmental history. Atleework is a shrewd observer and her writing is a gratifying contribution to the desert-literature genre.


Mark Olson and Ingunn Ringvold Celebrate New Album With Performance Video (premiere)

Mark Olson (The Jayhawks) and Ingunn Ringvold share a 20-minute performance video that highlights their new album, Magdalen Accepts the Invitation. "This was an opportunity to perform the new songs and pretend in a way that we were still going on tour because we had been so looking forward to that."


David Grubbs and Taku Unami Collaborate on the Downright Riveting 'Comet Meta'

Comet Meta is a brilliant record full of compositions and moments worthy of their own accord, but what's really enticing is that it's not only by David Grubbs but of him. It's perhaps the most emotive, dream-like, and accomplished piece of Grubbsian experimental post-rock.


On Their 2003 Self-Titled Album, Buzzcocks Donned a Harder Sound and Wore it With Style and Taste

Buzzcocks, the band's fourth album since their return to touring in 1989, changed their sound but retained what made them great in the first place

Reading Pandemics

Chaucer's Plague Tales

In 18 months, the "Great Pestilence" of 1348-49 killed half of England's population, and by 1351 half the population of the world. Chaucer's plague tales reveal the conservative edges of an astonishingly innovative medieval poet.


Country's Jaime Wyatt Gets in Touch With Herself on 'Neon Cross'

Neon Cross is country artist Jaime Wyatt's way of getting in touch with all the emotions she's been going through. But more specifically, it's about accepting both the past and the present and moving on with pride.


Counterbalance 17: Public Enemy - 'It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back'

Hip-hop makes its debut on the Big List with Public Enemy’s meaty, beaty manifesto, and all the jealous punks can’t stop the dunk. Counterbalance’s Klinger and Mendelsohn give it a listen.


Sondre Lerche and the Art of Radical Sincerity

"It feels strange to say it", says Norwegian pop artist Sondre Lerche about his ninth studio album, "but this is the perfect time for Patience. I wanted this to be something meaningful in the middle of all that's going on."


How the Template for Modern Combat Journalism Developed

The superbly researched Journalism and the Russo-Japanese War tells readers how Japan pioneered modern techniques of propaganda and censorship in the Russo-Japanese War.


From Horrifying Comedy to Darkly Funny Horror: Bob Clark Films

What if I told you that the director of one of the most heartwarming and beloved Christmas movies of all time is the same director as probably the most terrifying and disturbing yuletide horror films of all time?

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features
PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.