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