risky business

'Young' docu pulls at the old heartstrings

The good news is that Fox Searchlight has picked up the North American distribution rights to the new documentary "Young @ Heart," the breakout hit of the just-concluded Los Angeles Film Festival. The bad news is that the specialty films division has scheduled the film's U.S. release for spring of next year.

Now, that's only bad news because right now we are at the height of the summer movie season, where cinematic explosions shake the multiplex walls. With only a few exceptions — like the more quietly whimsical charms of "Ratatouille" — the big guns of summer, such as current boxoffice leader "Transformers" and its action-movie competitor "Live Free or Die Hard," are about making as much noise as possible.

"Young," on the other hand, is quietly subversive. It's a film that's likely to sneak up on audiences.

On paper, the movie's subject sounds cute but dangerously gimmicky. Directed by British filmmaker Stephen Walker, "Young" follows a chorus of senior citizens in Northampton, Mass., as they rehearse for a new show. What sets this group apart, though, is that choral director Bob Cilman, who founded the chorus in 1982, challenges his singers by choosing contemporary rock songs from performers as diverse as Bob Dylan and James Brown, Sonic Youth and Coldplay.

On the face of it, that's not especially promising; it could have resulted in nothing more than a novelty act like Disco Sally, the dancing senior who earned notoriety as a regular at New York's Studio 54 in that club's heyday.

But after the first few minutes of "Young," any trepidation viewers might have about laughing uneasily at older performers indulging in an age-inappropriate spectacle quickly dissipates

In its overall format, Walker's film is fairly conventional — a sympathetic spectator, the director arrives in Northampton to chronicle the preparations for a new show, interspersing rehearsal footage with more in-depth interviews with the participants. But just when it appears the film will be an earnestly polite movie, it breaks its own rules, bursting into a full-fledged music video-type presentation of the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," staged by Sally George, the film's producer and Walker's wife, with whom he is partnered in Walker George Films. The seniors give a fierce performance, and the song quickly takes on deeper, richer meanings.

Later in the film, after one of the chorus members dies unexpectedly, the group performs Dylan's "Forever Young" to a captive audience at a Massachusetts state prison. The sequence is easily one of the most moving moments to have recently graced the screen.

Fortunately, this is one of those cases where a film's merits have been quickly recognized.

Since it was produced for Britain's Channel 4, "Young" walked away with the LAFF's audience award for best international feature despite its very American setting.

Recognizing the potential for a narrative feature remake, Working Title's Tim Bevan and Eric Fellner scooped up rights this summer (HR 6/5). While any adaptation will have to resist a case of the cutes a la a movie like "Cocoon," a smart remake would provide a showcase for older performers, and the interspersed music video numbers could chime in with added, biting commentary like the musical numbers did in "Chicago."

In the meantime, Searchlight has a potential crowd-pleaser on its hands when it does release the docu. There is one limitation to "Young's" awards potential: Because it first aired on television in Britain, it won't be eligible for Academy Awards consideration. For that, other filmmakers with competing Oscar hopes can only breathe a sigh of relief.
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