Young @ Heart

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Los Angeles Film Festival

Winner of the audience award for best international film at the Los Angeles Film Festival, "Young @ Heart" tells an irresistible story with verve and skill. Director Stephen Walker saw a performance by a musical group of seniors in London, and he was so captivated that he decided to pursue the group to their home base in Northampton, Mass., and follow them around with cameras. The result is a documentary that inspires audiences to burst into applause at several points during the film.

Fox Searchlight, which acquired the film a few days after the festival wrapped, might have a boxoffice sleeper on its hands.

The unusual thing about the "Young" musical group is that they do not perform standards made famous by Frank Sinatra or Nat King Cole but rather contemporary rock music by such groups as Coldplay, the Clash and Sonic Youth. It was the brainstorm of the chorus' director, Bob Cilman, to undercut expectations by training his group to perform today's music rather than yesterday's classics.

Most of the members of the chorus admit that these songs would not be their own listening favorites, but they enjoy the challenge of performing unfamiliar songs and finding the relevance to their own lives. Indeed, the songs they perform, including "Forever Young," "Stayin' Alive" and "I Want to Be Sedated," take on added wit and poignancy when performed by people in their 70s and 80s. (The oldest member of the chorus is 93.) Sometimes they have a bit of trouble mastering the lyrics, which provides much of the film's impish humor.

Walker narrates the film and sometimes overstates the obvious. The film is best when he lets the singers speak for themselves, or when he simply records their performances. A few of the songs are wittily staged as music videos, like production numbers from a brand new movie musical, whereas other scenes show the chorus in rehearsal and at their climactic performance in Northampton. The emotional high point comes when the chorus performs "Forever Young" at a nearby prison, and their eloquent interpretation of the song visibly moves the inmates.

The personal stories chronicled in the film also are deeply poignant. Several members of the chorus are battling serious illnesses. During the six weeks that Walker follows them, two of the most beloved members die. The deaths are a shock to the chorus, but they insist on going on with the show. Even if Walker is a bit too much of a chatterbox, he obviously succeeded in winning the confidence of the chorus members, for they allowed him to film a number of extraordinarily intimate moments.

The editing by Chris King is a major asset, for it finds just the right balance of humor, pathos and musical epiphanies. Sound recording also is first-rate. One challenge for Fox Searchlight will be securing the rights to all the music, which will jack up the cost of the film. Still, this picture is a winner. Any film that dispels stereotypes of the elderly deserves praise, but "Young" does it with a candid, impudent spirit that transcends sentimentality.

YOUNG @ HEART
Fox Searchlight
Walker George Films in association with Channel 4
Credits:
Director: Stephen Walker
Producer: Sally George
Executive producer: Hannah Beckerman
Director of photography: Edward Marritz
Editor: Chris King
Running time -- 110 minutes
No MPAA rating
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