One might think that a documentary set in modern hospital-style nursing homes, even including a brief history of how such fundamentally sterile institutions came to be such a major part of contemporary American society, would be rather depressing. But that’s not the case with Michael Rossato-Bennett’s “Alive Inside,” which celebrates the salutary impact that music can have on patients afflicted with dementia.
The film is effectively a promotional piece centered on the efforts of New York social worker and activist Dan Cohen, who has for years been working to raise funds to provide nursing homes with iPods that can be distributed among residents suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of mental debilitation. Cohen’s own investigations showed that even those who had become almost completely uncommunicative and inactive could be rejuvenated by in effect plugging the songs they’d loved back into their brains. And he discovered that though the cost of equipment was far less than that of the expensive medications regularly prescribed for them, bureaucratic red tape would be a virtually insurmountable obstacle. So Cohen began raising donations to support an organization called Music and Memory, which has succeeded in providing iPods to homes in a growing number of states.
“Alive Inside” includes historical data about how the nineteenth century, and the movement of industrialization that occurred during it, altered circumstances for elders, leaving many of them ill and destitute in poor houses until the Social Security system, and later Medicare and Medicaid, were established as government programs. The growth of a nursing home industry accompanied them, leading to the system operative today. But as experts warn, the explosive growth in the numbers of those who will soon require care necessitates new approaches to treatment. And such varied sources as noted neurologist Oliver Sacks and musician Bobby McFerrin are interviewed to discuss how the musical impulse has been wired into the human brain and how it withstands the ravages of dementia more successfully than other forms of stimuli.
But while the historical, medical and analytical data is instructive, what viewers will really respond to are the sequences showing individual patients responding almost miraculously to the sound of music. We see an apparently somnolent fellow named Henry perk up immediately and become quite voluble in response to the headphones, while a woman named Denise actually abandons her walker and begins dancing to the music, as does an elderly veteran named John, even though he’s strapped in a wheelchair—and he regales his fellow patients in song, too. And among those still living in their own homes, a woman who can’t even remember how to operate the elevator in her apartment building participates excitedly as her personal playlist is added to the device. No wonder that when the footage of Henry is put on line, it attracts millions of views and enthusiastic comments from people who use the technique with their own family members, as well as volunteers who—as Cohen hopes—will become regular visitors to nursing home patients.
All this material is understandably inspiring, even if Rossato-Bennett proves no great shakes as a filmmaker. He and two other editors—Mark Demolar and Manuel Tsingaris—stitch together the footage shot in homespun fashion by Shachar Langley without much sense of rhythm or structure. The narration that he’s written, and delivers himself in halting fashion, is frequently banal and cliché-ridden. And when he attempts to get a little fancy, showing supposedly ordinary folks watching the online video of Henry and responding to it, the result is almost risibly tacky. The insertion of flashes of light and home-movie montages of unspecified provenance into the sequences showing the rejuvenated elders is suspect as well as intrusive. More importantly, he offers no scientific evidence to indicate the success rate of Cohen’s program; we’re not shown any instances in which patients fail to respond to what they hear over the headphones, yet certainly there must be some.
But while “Alive Inside” can be faulted for its shortcomings as a film and even as an argument, it’s welcome for providing a glimpse of what amounts to an alternative treatment for the ever-growing number of elder Americans suffering from dementia. It appears that music can not only soothe the savage breast but reinvigorate the darkened mind.