YOUNG AT HEART: Summary
Dir. Stephen Walker ( UK, 2008)
ONE: INTRODUCING THE CHOIR
- Slow-motion, applause, at concert by the Young at Heart group. Then CU of an old woman, with a British accent and white hair, singing lines from a rock song. We see her also in a brief interview segment. Concert footage continues, and we hear voice-over narration by a British voice saying that this chorus is unique. Then the same old woman in interview footage: she lists some of the rock groups they sing songs from. Back to the concert footage and voice-over narration. He says the film will follow the group for 7 weeks as they prepare for a new show. There are 24 old people in the group. Concert song ends.
- Northampton, Massachusetts. Bob Cilman, the chorus’ director, is shown at work. He begins the rehearsal in a large airy room. He says they need to learn 7 new songs, and they will work on 3 today. The first song: “Schizophrenia,” by punk band Sonic Youth. Bob Cilman is concerned they won’t like the piece. Then we see a quick montage of rehearsal (with the old people making faces) and quick interview segments of the members summing up what kind of music they typically love—classical music.
- The chorus’ response to the next number, by James Brown (“I feel Good”) is enthusiastic. They love the beat. Bob Cilman pairs Stan Goldman, 76, who has severe disabilities, with Dora Morrow, 83, a great-great-grandmother. They will do the lead vocals. But there’s a problem: both are having problems with their intro lines: “I feel good—like I knew that I would.” Bob Cilman shows some humor, and yet some sarcasm. The duo is featured in an interview segment afterwards.
- Fast-paced music leads to a tracking shot, and the narrator setting up interview footage of Eileen Hall, 92, the oldest member of the group. She is a former striptease artist. There she is, the woman we saw earlier. She jokes with the crew about adjourning to her bedroom. She actually lives in a nursing home, but she is the only resident with a key to the front door—so that she can come and go to rehearsals and shows.
- Then we see the first music video showcasing the group: yes, a music video done by old people! The setting of the video is a nursing home! Is the name of the song “I want to be sedated”?
TWO. STAN, DORA, EILEEN, AND JOE: THREE NEW SONGS
- Another traveling shot in Northampton, and then we cut to four of the cast members heading to rehearsal. They will be rehearsing an R & B number by Allen Toussaint, “Yes, We Can Can.” Then at rehearsal, Bob Cilman takes them through the words. Problem: the word can comes in at least 71 times in the song, and everyone is confused. Joe is one of the lead singers. He’s a lanky fellow with big glasses and an easy smile. Then it’s back to rehearsing “Schizophrenia.” The narrator wonders how Bob Cilman will make it work for the chorus. Bob Cilman works with the two lead singers, Eileen and another woman. Another new song: “Life During Wartime” by the Talking Heads. The lead singers are Joe Benoit and Lenny, a short, bowed guy with thinning hair. Joe, 83, went through 6 bouts of chemotherapy and is famous for his ability to memorize large chunks of lyrics. Lenny and Joe ride back from the rehearsal and sing an old song. Eileen is in the car, too. Of the three, only Lenny has good enough eyes to drive—and he is a bit wild and erratic at it.
- The next day the narrator drops in on Stan. He shows off how much he has learned the
song and does some great vocals. Then cut to rehearsal with Dora, the other lead singer. Stan is having trouble learning some of the simple lyrics. More rehearsal time. Then six of the chorus’ members, including Lenny and Eileen, are interviewed and talk about why they enjoy being in the chorus.
THREE. TWO OLD MEMBERS RETURN
- Traveling shot. The narrator notes that Bob Cilman wants to add two former cast members to this new show. Both had to leave the group because of ill health. He wants them to do the lead vocals on the Coldplay song, “Fix You.” We meet Fred Knittle first. He is a heavy-set man with a great baritone voice. In his house he sings an old Western song. He talks about a European tour: “We went from continent to continent until I became incontinent.” Ha! Ha! Then we see Bob Cilman driving in his car and praising the work of Fred. Back to Fred. He has congestive heart failure and thus needs to be on oxygen.
- The second new lead is Bob Salvini, and traveling shots take us to his house. He was in the chorus in the 1990s and had a great solo in “Every Breath You Take.” He almost died recently. There he is, a shadow of his former self, at his dining room table. Back to the Bob Cilman shot in the car. He talks about being shocked by hearing of Bob’s health scare. Back to Bob: he talks about what he had to go through. Then in the kitchen his wife and daughter talk about Bob singing his entire Young at Heart repertoire in the hospital. Actually, he was suffering from temporary dementia. The narrator notes that the last 4 years Bob has spent recovering from that illness. And what if Bob can’t get his voice back? He has one word for it: “devastating.”
- Rehearsal of the Coldplay song. We hear part of the original version, and then we see Bob return to rehearsal for the first time in 5 years. He is greeted warmly. We see Bob singing the lyrics for the first time: and his voice is weak. Bob Cilman in a brief interview clip praising the two men for keeping trying.
FOUR. ROUGH REHEARSALS AND HEALTH CRISES
- Five weeks before the show, and Lenny is driving again! There he is in rehearsal—blanking out on a key lyric. Poor Lenny! Back in the car again, and Lenny summarizes his activities in the week—rehearsal, choir, bike riding, and a harmonica chorus.
- Back to rehearsal. Lenny and Joe on “Life During Wartime.” Joe nails it! An interview segment with Bob Cilman as he revels in seeing Joe do so great on a first rehearsal. But the next song—“Yes, We Can Can” is AWFUL. Only Joe knows it by heart. Dora complains about all those “can” words. We see Eileen reading the “cans” at home—trying to learn them. At the rehearsal, Bob Cilman is upset—he wants them to learn it. He suggests they drop the song: but the chorus wants to keep it.
- We meet Steve Martin (not that one), an ex-marine, nearly 80, with an active life. There he is in the bathroom, nude except for his boxer shorts. He is a self-defined “sexy beast.” He suggests that sex is very good for him at nearly 80.
- A second music video, this one at a carnival, “Golden Years” the song.
- Back at rehearsal and “I Feel Good.” Still problems with Dora and Stan. Bob Cilman is livid, and so we cut to Dora at home and she talks about how Bob Cilman is tough on the chorus sometimes. He stops the rehearsal of that number, and later talks on camera about how poorly the chorus is doing learning these new songs. The director/narrator asks, “Where are you now?” Bob Cilman says, “We’re in hell.”
- Another traveling shot. Fred and his wife Barbara have invited the narrator over for dinner. There they are in the kitchen, married 54 years. Fred keeps the comedy humming: “We stayed together for the kids—she didn’t want ‘em, neither did I.” One joke after the other. They clearly enjoy each other’s company.
- Back at rehearsal. Bob doesn’t look too good. He can barely stand on his own. He couldn’t make it to yesterday’s rehearsal. He tries to sing his part—but he has almost no voice left. The others look on. Bob Cilman says, “You can’t do anything wrong here.” Later, they learn that Bob was in the hospital. He suffered from chest pains. Bob “insisted on coming to rehearsal.” The narrator asks Bob, once he is in his car, why he came? “I was afraid Bob would put somebody else in my spot.” Bob Cilman on camera: he says he gave Bob the CD and told him to work on it at home. Back to the car interview: “I really love what I’m doing.” The director (narrator) tells him they hope to see him again when they return from break, in about 10 days.
FIVE. HEALTH CRISIS WORSENS BUT REHEARSALS CONTINUE
- Graphic: “Ten Days Later.” We see posters for the concert being printed. The concert is billed as “Alive and Well!” Joe is featured in the center of the poster. But 8 days earlier Bob had a cardiac arrest and almost died. Outside the hospital, Bob’s wife tells her story. Inside the hospital, there’s Bob, about to be sent to a nursing home for convalescence. The director/narrator says hello, and Bob answers weakly. Bob Cilman and his wife at home, and Bob Cilman talks about Bob. “He’s amazing.” Back to the hospital. Bob’s wife asks if he will make the show. He doesn’t answer, but you can tell he wants to make that performance. A quick interview scene with Fred, who praises Bob. Fred admits that he is learning Bob’s part, just in case Bob can’t make it. Back to the hospital. Bob being moved by the EMT guys. We see him put in the ambulance, and the camera turns and there is his wife. “I’m glad that’s done. I feel like we’re on our way now.” We hear a voice-over of another song—
- And that leads us to the 3 rd music video by the group: “We’re on the Road to Nowhere.”
- Rehearsal. Bob Cilman gives the report on Bob Salvini. It’s two weeks to the show.
Back to rehearsal of “Yes We Can Can,” and this time it looks like Bob Cilman may include it in the show after all.
SIX. DEATH OF A CHOIR MEMBER & PRISON CONCERT
- Shots of Northampton. The chorus ready to board a bus to go to a concert inside a nearby prison. When all are on the bus, the assistant Diane gets on board with only audio, and announces (as the camera stays on the exterior of the bus) that Bob Salvini died last night. She talks more and everyone responds with their concerns. Then shots of the roadway as the mood changes, and then the interior of the bus on the way to the prison. Music only plays over the video.
- The chorus, wearing white and blue, assembled in the yard of the prison. Inmates sit on the grass above them. Their first number: “This gun’s for hire.” This scene intercut with an interview segment of Bob Cilman sitting outside. He talks about going on—the need to keep moving forward even in the face of Bob’s death. People in the chorus have died before and the chorus has moved on. Back to the concert.
- Bob Cilman says the next song is dedicated to Bob Salvini: “Forever Young.” Reaction shots of the inmates. They are moved. They love it. Afterwards, chorus members mingle with the prisoners. One of the latter says, “This is the best performance I’ve ever seen in my life!”
SEVEN. ANOTHER HEALTH CRISIS AND FRED PREPARES FOR THE CONCERT
- Northampton. Fred working on Bob’s part for the concert. Then in an interview segment in front of his house, he talks about his response to Bob’s death. “I want to dedicate this song to Bob.”
- Rehearsal. Bob Cilman says today is Lenny’s 86 th birthday. He is one funny guy. Then on the road with Lenny again in his little white car.
- Another set of bad news. Joe has had breathing problems, and he went to the doctor. He has a low white blood cell count, and he has come in for a transfusion. The director/narrator asks him if he’s worried the cancer is back. But no, Joe is just happy to be singing. That’s what keeps him going. Of course, he is never entirely serious—and he jokes about his situation at last. The narrator asks him, “Are you going to keep on singing?” “I think that’s the key,” Joe says. Rehearsal. The chorus works on two numbers.
- Then we see a shot of Northampton, and we hear a phone call between Joe and Bob Cilman. Then we see Bob Cilman on the phone. He asks about Joe’s breathing. “Not that great,” Joe says. “The only thing we care about is you getting better.”
- Fred at home. His wife attends to him. Then Fred at his table. “You don’t get out of this world alive—that’s for sure!” He recites his eulogy—a poem.
- The group’s 4 th music video, featuring Fred, as the group sings ”Stayin’
Alive,” made famous by the Bee Gees.
EIGHT. ANOTHER LOSS—AND YET THE SHOW MUST GO ON
- Interior of a café. Lenny meets the director for breakfast. Lenny says that Joe, his partner in one song, “Life During Wartime,” has pneumonia and won’t be able to sing. Lenny laughs after putting up the poster—featuring Joe in the center standing with his hand held high. The narrator says, “Fifteen minutes later Lenny got a call from Bob Cilman’s assistant saying that Joe died this morning.” The cancer had returned. He died one week after Bob Salvini died.
- Rehearsal. A woman, the lead singer, does a wonderful job on the number. The song seems a fitting memorial to Joe’s death—the chorus is “Nothing compares to you.” Then the singer, on camera, talks about Joe: “He never had a bad word to say to anybody. He made you happy.” Another woman talks on camera—holding back tears. A third woman says they will go on with the show. “If I collapse on stage, drag me off and continue with the show.” Then Eileen says Joe wanted to go on—and he would want the show to go on. “If it happened to me, I would expect them to go on. When I pass on, I shall be sitting on a rainbow looking down, watching you.” Quick shot of the poster Lenny hung on the bulletin board at the café.
- Then a wide shot of Northampton. Bob Cilman talks to some of the crew as they prepare the stage. Eileen at home getting dressed. We see Dora at work, and then see Steve Martin shining his shoes. Tonight is the performance. The montage of preparation continues. Then an interview segment with Bob Cilman.
NINE. THE CONCERT
- That evening, crowds gather outside the auditorium. Backstage the group members gather and toast Joe and Bob. Interior with the full house. Backstage, Bob Cilman charges up the troops. On stage the concert begins. Bob Cilman sings along with one of the chorus members as lead singers. This is an upbeat song—a good show starter. It’s a good R & B number. Bob Cilman does the introductions.
- We see Fred’s wife in the audience. Now for the song from Sonic Youth—“Schizophrenia.” It’s a barn burner of a number. The male lead singer, Steve Martin, is great here. The group does the manic group laugh of the schizophrenic! The closing manic laugh is perfect! Great reaction shot of Bob Cilman.
- Backstage for a break. All are happy. Back on stage for the last three songs. Fred backstage: “Instead of a swan song, it’s my ugly duckling song.” His last appearance—unless there is a special occasion. Then we see Dora and Fred practicing.
- On stage. It’s time for “I Feel Good” by James Brown, and Dora gets it off with the perfect howl. Even Fred lets out a howl to make us proud. The audience loves them! Bob Cilman dances around the stage—in heaven. The audience roars its approval.
- Bob Cilman notes the deaths of Bob and Joe. He talks about their individual styles and their character. Here comes Fred to sing (alone) the song that was supposed to be a duet with Bob. He sings “I’ll Fix You,” and as he sings, you can hear the rhythmic pulsing of the oxygen canister. He sings the song slowly—every word audible—and the chorus comes in to support him on some lines. “And I will try—to fix you!” is the key line. On another verse the choir comes in louder over several lines. Suddenly they cut out—and we return to Fred’s solo. “Lights will guide you on—and ignite your bones—and I will try—to fix you!” He holds that last note. Standing ovation. Then a cut to a scene of Fred sitting at home and reading an e-mail he sent to the chorus, thanking them for the chance to sing with them again.
- The last song: “Yes We Can Can.” There are several lead singers and the rest of the choir sings backup. The audience claps along. Of course, the chorus gets all the “cans” right. Big applause. Standing ovation. Chorus members embrace on stage.
- Backstage, the members are ecstatic.
- Credits begin. A graphic shows the names and ages of the main chorus members. Quick interview segments are interspersed through these credits. At the end of the film a graphic showing Eileen Hall notes she died July 9, 2007, age 93, and is now sitting on her rainbow.
Summary written by Robert E. Yahnke
Film resource written by Robert Yahnke
Copyright, Robert E. Yahnke, © 2009
Professor, Univ. of Minnesota
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