I feel guilty for not liking Young@Heart much. Older people find enjoyment and meaning in their lives by participating in a chorus where they get to sing rock songs. There’s a fabulous video for “I Wanna Be Sedated,” which takes on a whole new meaning when performed by the over-60 (and mostly over-80) singers. And when you say you don’t like a documentary about happy singing elderly people, you wonder what’s next on your hit list — LOLcats? The Princess Bride? Judd Apatow films? (Um, err …) Despite this, I was impatient for the movie to end and have reservations about recommending it to anyone.
The focus of this documentary is fairly straightforward: Young At Heart, a choral group of senior citizens, has changed their repertoire in recent years to rock music, with new arrangements of a variety of songs like “I Feel Good,” “Forever Young,” and so forth. The filmmakers follow a few of the group’s members in their daily lives, getting to know them and understanding how important Young At Heart is to them in terms of friendship and so forth. We see rehearsals in which the group struggles with some songs and arrangements, like a tongue-twisting Allen Toussaint tune. These sequences are interspersed with music videos of the group, showing us that older people can be feisty musicians too. Inevitable tragedies occur, but the show must go on.
The beginning of the documentary made me feel that the movie was capitalizing on its gimmick too much — the “look at the funny old people who rock out” theme. The idea is that the movie is supposed to be challenging our stereotypes of the elderly, but this is just another stereotype, the old person who deliberately is played against type to score laughs or even seem charming and adorable. Fortunately, the documentary moves beyond this stereotype as we get to know the characters better, but it’s difficult to overcome.
I also felt Stephen Walker’s direction was too intrusive. His narration often gets in the way, and he adds a tone that I’ve encountered on other British films and articles about the U.S. (America Unchained, for example): that sense of surprise at the antics and crazy politics in this country that just isn’t quite as wonderful as theirs. I’m sure we do the same thing in American-made films about the UK, but that’s no excuse for this irritating style.
In addition — and I know I just made the same complaint about Forgetting Sarah Marshall — Young@Heart is too damn long. The last third drags terribly. Throughout the film we’ve seen the group rehearsing several songs that are important to them, and some suspense is built on how well these songs will do in performance. So in the final concert sequence, every single one of these songs is performed in full. You’d have to love this group madly to want to sit through all these songs one final time, and I didn’t feel that invested. (The exception was a moving rendition of the Coldplay song “Fix You.”) I kept thinking, “Oh no. Not that song again. Can’t they just show us the one relevant passage that kept getting messed up in rehearsal?” But no. It seemed to drag on for hours — the movie is an hour and 50 minutes long, but a nice round 85 minutes would have kept me more engaged.
I feel like a heel for not liking an upbeat documentary like Young@Heart, which is currently pulling an 86 percent positive rating on Rotten Tomatoes. But the movie takes the obvious sentimental route and yanks heartstrings in the most blatantly manipulative ways. I also feel like an elitist — the movie is obviously targeted for as mainstream an audience as possible, and is that one reason why I don’t like it? Because it seems too simple and dumbed-down, and has no real message other than the great powers of music for people of any age, or the great and complex spirit of the elderly.
That brings up another question: does a documentary need to send us a message, or can we simply enjoy watching other human beings and their lives? I rail about some docs being too propaganda-y, so it’s perhaps surprising that I wouldn’t enjoy a movie entirely in the other direction. But the combination of a long and repetitive third act, heavy-handed direction, and lack of depth meant that Young@Heart simply didn’t click for me.