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Thursday, June 12, 2008

Young at Heart

So the Wave-inatrix just happens to live one city block from a theater that shows great movies for three bucks. I go in my slippers. It's amazing. So yesterday I toodled over (in actual shoes) to finally see Young at Heart, a documentary about a senior citizen choral group from Northampton, Mass.

If you aren't familiar with the doc or the Young at Heart Chorus, this group of (very) senior citizens performs contemporary rock music - on the road. In the documentary, for example, they learn and perform songs by Sonic Youth, Coldplay and The Talking Heads. And they perform with heart. No, it is not an exploitation doc, in which viewers laugh at old folks warbling through songs by the Clash - this is a documentary about the range of expression and interpretation that a group of dedicated older folks bring to the music. It is a documentary about what is possible.

Bill Cilman, the musical director is both exacting and patient. And he loves music. The Young at Heart Chorus' version of Coldplay's Fix You is absolutely heart-wrenching. It reminded me a little bit of Johnny Cash's cover of The Nine Inch Nails "Hurt".

The scene in which the chorus peforms for a county jail was particularly moving. The group of tattooed, rough-looking convicts sits on the grass sort of smirking a little until the music begins. By the end of the set, they are grinning from ear to ear and some wipe away tears. Such is the power of music - and the life force of these elders - to move people. Bill Cilman is now officially one of my heroes.

I was struck not only by the joy in the music, the belief of Bill Cilman, the heart of the chorus but also by the sheer power of documentary to show us a little corner of life that we may not have otherwise known about. Most of us think of documentary film as one of those dry, dull bits we might flip past on a public television special, filled with the sound of droning planes from World War II or blurry footage of civil rights protesters. But documentary film can be so much more than that.

A (very) short list of some of my favorites:

The Thin Blue Line
The Times of Harvey Milk
Regret to Inform
Brother's Keeper
The Untold Story of Emmett Louis Till

And of course, I also very much enjoyed Michael Moore's work although I would categorize that as docu-opinion-tainment:

Farenheit 9/11
Bowling for Columbine

Yes, yes, we also have Sicko and Roger and Me. There's only so much looking up and linking the Wave-inatrix is apt to do on a Thursday morning before that third cup of coffee. A truly great documentary, while always manipulated to an extent (the power of music and editing to manipulate emotion is HUGE), allows the material and the situation speak for itself. Moore is, in my opinion, a gifted and generally entertaining polemicist while Errol Morris is a true documentarian.

Documentary film is one of my passions. A doc made well is a tremendously moving experience. Documentary ignites passion, curiosity and emotion because this is real life and there's something about staying on that side of the divide that shows us, spectacularly, how compelling the nitty gritty of real life is. And it shows us the depth, complexity and endless supply of story happening all around us.

How does any of this apply to screenwriting? (Somebody, usually the little voice in my head, usually asks that eventually.) In particular, Young at Heart is a movie about what is possible. And sometimes writing scripts, much less selling one feels impossible. And as you watch Young at Heart you think - it's impossible. These people are too old and out-of-touch. They can't pull off a song by Sonic Youth. They can't travel and perform. They can't understand the lyrics to the Talking Heads the way we young hipsters do. Oh - but they can. And they do.

So when you feel overwhelmed by screenwriting and life - you remember these old folks (whom we are all turning into, before our mirrors, little by little daily) and what they know is possible for themselves. They love to sing and they love to entertain. And again, Bill Cilman, the man behind the organization, doesn't give these folks dignity but rather allows their dignity, passion and joy to be up on stage - that is a man to aspire to.

Don't let the odds, your age or your location deter you if you love to write. What is possible for you to achieve?

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Anonymous said...

This film reached the UK last year, and received great acclaim. It also inspired other older citizens [ we call them pensioners here] to do exactly the same thing and has been extremely successful.
It literally changed people's lives.
All praise to the power of celluloid.

Bye the way. 3 dollars? I paid £7.20 sterling the other weekend = about 14 dollars= to see Iron Man.

I am now even more envious.:-)

Julie Gray said...

I know, right?! You cannot beat three bucks. I KNEW I loved this neighborhood for a reason.