“I came out of that theatre really a changed person,” Stephen Walker during a recent Dallas visit said of the first concert he heard by the Northampton, Massachusetts chorus called Young@Heart, a group with an average age of eighty that specializes in singing rock ’n roll songs. Walker saw the group during one of its many European tours, and the experience eventually resulted in his making a documentary about the chorus’ six-week preparation for a rare performance at home, apart from their regular trips to England and other countries.
“I’d set up a production company in London with my partner and producer Sally George,” he recalled, “and we were looking for an idea—something really unusual and different and fresh. And one day Sally came and said, ‘Look, I don’t know whether it’s interesting or not, but I’ve got this flyer for this group from America. They’re playing in a big theatre near us, and I’ve bought a couple of tickets. We’re going.’
“And I said, ‘Oh, God—rock ’n roll music, old people! What is this, some sort of crazy gimmick?’ But I went along, and two things struck me straightaway. The first was, it was completely packed. And it was every age group—teenagers, twenty-somethings…all the way up to older people, quite an extraordinary age range. The second thing that happened—which I duplicate in the film—is that Eileen [Hall], this 93-year old, came up to the microphone, and she screamed the opening lines to ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ by The Clash, which was a shock, to say the least, to me and to everybody in the audience. And I thought to myself, this is really interesting, because she’s talking about life and death. And at the very end of it she shouts one more time, ‘Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ and the audience all yelled back, ‘Stay!’ ‘Live!’ is what they were really saying.
“At that point I thought, this is not just a gimmick. These people are very good singers. But they’re also singing about very interesting things, using the language other generations can respond to. And when they sing it, it means something quite different. I said to Sally, ‘This is the chance to make a musical about old age. Wouldn’t it be brilliant to take this concept and do the taboo thing, to explore all the issues about old people—about loneliness, about death, about sickness, about disability, about losing your friends, about old people’s homes, about obsession with youth culture—but we use music, music that other generations can relate to. They’re looking at people singing their music—music that younger people can relate to—who are doing an exciting, interesting and refreshing job of it, and they’re doing it with vim and with life and with laughter and with love. People respond to that.”
When Walker and George approached Bob Cilman, the chorus’ long-time director, however, his reaction was initially negative. “We had a meeting with him that went very badly, actually,” Walker recalled. Cilman confirmed that, though he ultimately relented. “What’s fun about the group is just getting together and have rehearsals where you get to do whatever you want and just enjoy the process of making music,” he explained. “And sometimes it’s not so great to have all sorts of cameras around you while you’re doing that—it can make you backslide to a certain extent. But we got used to their being there, and [while] there are some moments in the movie where I feel some mugging is going on, not for the most part.” Cilman certainly appreciates Walker’s final product, though with some reservations. “It’s wonderful that we have the movie, so many more people can see them,” he said. “But this is a group that really needs to be seen live…because the energy they give off in a live concert is so incredible. That’s something you just can’t capture completely in a film.”
Two chorus members who were part of the promotional visit, Dora B. (Parker) Morrow and Jack Schnepp, exhibited the energy Cilman spoke about. Morrow, who was introduced to the chorus by its drummer (her son-in-law) and does a solo in James Brown’s “I Feel Good,” talked about how difficult it was to capture what Cilman wanted in the song. “I knew it in his [Brown’s] way, but I had to bring it down to Bob’s way,” she said. “That’s where the problem came in. It took me some time to hook into what Bob wanted me to hook into, because every time I opened my mouth, I’d think about [Brown]. That was the fun part of my working with Bob. I finally got it down to where he wanted it.”
Schnepp, who was brought to the group by a friend with whom he sang in a barber-shop chorus, said, “It’s really tough to learn some of these songs. The beat is there, but the lyrics we never really learned from the original players, because the band was so overpowering. But now we got a chance to read the music and the lyrics and understand them so that we can put our own interpretation on it. It’s good to have something that you really have to concentrate on. It makes you feel good that you’ve done something like that, and I think we do a little bit of a twist on some of the songs. They’re interpreted differently.”
The film—which Walker said was originally intended as a 48-minute television program before being expanded to 90, then 105, and finally given an entire evening’s slot on Britain’s Channel 4—was never thought of as a theatrical feature until he showed it in Northampton. “I thought that was the last time anyone would see it on the big screen,” he said. But then it scored a success at the Los Angeles Film Festival, it was decided to recut it for regular distribution, and the result was picked up by Fox Searchlight.
Cilman is pleased that “Young@Heart” captures not only the chorus’ performances—both in concerts and in music videos—but the experience of working with people whose average age is eighty. “It’s hard,” he admitted. “”You see a lot of people die in this gig. But on the other hand you know you’ve been with people at the end of their life doing something that they never expected to do. They’re not people who in earlier days would reasonably have hung out with each other. Music has brought them together in a great way. And they work so hard to stay alive to do it.
“The great thing about the chorus is…that what they say is ‘This is who we are,’ and it’s very clear they’re about being in your face about their age, not trying to hide it one bit, not trying to hide their infirmity. I don’t think what they do is ‘cute.’ I think what they do is really hard work to make something very different from what you expect.”
Walker added that his film mirrored Cilman’s observation. “We hard a kind of ‘cutesy-guard factor,’” he said. “We never, never wanted to be cute. We aimed to make a film that respected the dignity of these people.”
As well as one that conveys the joys and sorrows of their lives and the energy of their singing, too.