Of the many surprises at this year's Sundance Film
Festival, one of the most charming was a little doc called
Young@Heart. Filmed over a several months' rehearsal period leading
up to a concert tour, veteran British director Stephen Walker and his
wife, producer Sally George, tell the story of the Young at Heart Chorus
based in Northhampton, MA.
Given that Sundance is thought to be the mega-festival for the cutting
edge of indie film, this documentary of people growing old with dignity
— still enthusiastic for learning things and accomplishing new
challenges before an audience not just of peers, but of all ages — was
downright inspiring and an important treatise on coping with aging.
The film details their struggle to overcome physical adversities in
order to learn the songs and actually make the tour. Going against the
stereotype of this age group — whose average age is 81 — music director
Bob Cilman (who is in his early 50s) gets them to perform rock and soul
songs by the likes of James Brown, Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones.
Over 25 years ago, Cilman had been hired to work with this community of
seniors at a local assisted living apartment complex, where he got the
idea over lunch at the senior center.
Since that time, this chorus has included World War I vets, elderly
comedians, former Broadway performers, classical musicians and
vaudeville performers. Given that turn-over is inevitable, Cilman
decided not to draw on songs from their own generation but ones that
would be entirely fresh to them, those from Cilman's generation and
Over the years, the group has established quite a following. They have
toured Europe and sang for royalty, and released CDs of their
performances (there is a new live one out now on their own label,
Mostly Live). Though they have been subject of other films for
television, this full-length feature focuses on how they prepared new
songs for a concert in their home town — not an easy endeavor — which
succeeds despite several heartbreaking events. The group is so
compelling that, notwithstanding Cilman's own strong personality (he now
heads the local arts council as well), they become richly defined
characters in their own right.
In fact, the four that came to New York to debut the film — Stephen
Martin, Stanley Goldman, Patricia Linderme and Jeanne Hatch — were so
engaging that it was worth seeing them at the Q&A at their premiere
public screening — something that's recommended if the opportunity
affords itself. And given the talk even now of this being a Best Doc
Oscar possibility, there should be more chances to see members of Young
at Heart not only on the screen but live as well.
people have misconceptions about seniors; they can be pretty perky like
the folks in this film.
That's one of the things that people get from this film. For us, it's
really quite overwhelming, and I often find it hard to put into words.
We've had a lot of screenings since the Los Angeles Film Festival [where
the film premiered]; we won the audience award, which was great — the
audience really loved it. Then we took it to Sundance, and since then
we've been on this tour. God, the reactions we're getting from
audiences, particularly when the audiences get big, have been absolutely
overwhelming as well.
I just sit here thinking that this is way beyond anything I created
here, and it's not even me, actually. It's them, and that's something,
because they aren't actors, these are real people which I documented.
There's something so remarkable about them, and I'm just delighted that
somehow we managed to capture that on film.
It's clearly reaching out to audiences in a really extraordinary way,
particularly when the chorus [members] come on stage for the Q&A at the
end. Entire audiences get to their feet, and I'm told that doesn't
happen very often. People are connecting on all kinds of levels. There
are people who've got parents [this age] — I'm in that situation too —
and there are people who are younger, who are thinking about
grandparents. There are people who are loving the music because it's
great fun, or enjoying these people's characters. And there are people
who are addressing their own mortality.
I hope the film is allowing people to address their own mortality — and
this sounds so corny that I kind of hate saying it — with some sort of
hope in there as well. Here are possibilities, ways to live your life.
Although I hate the idea of a message film — because I think the
important thing is to just make a good film. It's implicit all the way
through the story.
There's another film out now called Hats Off about a
93-year-old woman who became as an actress at 65 when her husband died.
Especially if you include the new Rolling Stones concert film (which is
of post-60 year-olds still rocking), is this a mini-trend of films
happening? What were your perceptions going into the film, how did they
change and what do you think about the idea of this being part of a
I can speak for Britain. I can't really speak for America, though I know
this country quite well since I was educated here and this is a world I
feel pretty comfortable in. But it would be presumptuous of me to speak
of Americans because I don't live here now. I do live in Britain and do
think that two things are happening. One, there is a kind of
reexamination of old age, and [two], that people are more and more
starting to get bored with [this] youth obsession, with that celebrity
obsession, and you're finding it more and more. There are a lot of
articles coming out in newspapers in Britain about actually, "you know
something, I'm fed up with this, it's so much of it" and you know, it's
actually quite refreshing.
I have a shot in the film which I'm really proud of. It's a shot of
Eileen after the announcement of [chorus member] Bob Salvini's death,
the first person who dies in the film, and they get on this bus and they
go to this prison to perform.
lot of people talk about the prison performance, which is, I think, very
moving. But there is this shot just before they start, of all of them
lined up waiting to go into the courtyard, and there are these harsh
fluorescent lights throughout the prison, and this shot that I did on
Eileen's face full of lines. There are a million, billion lines in her
face, she looks like 170, and to me it's a beautiful face. I really
think she has a beautiful face — and I just hold the shot for ages. It's
a huge close-up. They've just heard this news [about his death], and you
can see she's registering what it all means when she's standing there
waiting to perform. To me, that shot speaks volumes.
This is not a woman who's botoxed to the hilt, this is not somebody
who's trying to be young in that kind of plastic sense, but this is
someone who's genuinely young at heart, somebody whose spirit is young —
and because it is, she's able to embrace her age at the same time and
not be frightened of it, not even to be frightened of death, which she
talks about quite openly. She even tells us where she's going to be when
she dies: on a rainbow.
That's amazing, and audiences respond really well to that. We've had so
many people who come out of screenings and say, "I'm so sick of all
these 'bang 'em up, shoot 'em up' movies, one after another, which is so
anti-life in a way and here are these real people, living with real life
and reaching out to us." They find that inspirational, as I did, but I
didn't think anybody else would. It was when I was making [the film],
but I was really shocked, and again — it's one of those verbs I really
hate using because it always looks awful — but actually it's completely
sincere, quite humbling actually, to see that response from others.
As a documentary filmmaker, you're always piecing together what's
dramatic and drives a story from the material you collect. But those
deaths were something couldn't have been anticipated. Was there
something else you focused on before death arrived and shifted the film?
When I first saw the chorus in London I was incredibly excited by the
challenge of [filming it]. I'd seen them before and I saw Eileen,
amongst the many others, step up to the microphone and sing "Should I
Stay or Should I Go" by The Clash. Great shock, amazing to watch, very
funny, but it could be a one-trick pony. You know, "ha ha that's great,
isn't that funny, goodbye, a five-minute news item, the end."
But when I saw that — and you don't have to be an Einstein to see it —
[I realized] what you're actually looking at is somebody singing about
life and death. At the end of the song, when she calls out one more time
"should I stay or should I go," the audience all shout out "stay," what
they're actually saying is "live" and I found that very moving. Of
course, all their songs do that. When Lenny stands up and sings [Jimi
Hendrix's] "Purple Haze," he's not singing about drugs, he's singing
about dementia, and the fact that he can't remember the words is
actually part of the point.
to Nowhere" is actually a celebration of being on that road to a place
that is nowhere. It's not clever-clever, but the songs are really good
and they mean something. So I came out of that theatrical experience,
saying to my producer Sally George, "this is an amazing opportunity to
make a movie about old age like no movie that's been made before" —
because what we can do is a rock opera about old age. We can actually
look at old age through the medium of rock music. Rock music people will
know and identify with because they'll know the words. And that
immediately struck me as being an incredible challenge.
The music videos came out of that first conversation. I said, "You know,
this is the way to sell it, because we're never going to get a film
about old age off the ground anywhere." I had made films, actually,
about old people before, different ones, and had close relations with my
parents, and before that, my grandparents, and find that — and I hope
this doesn't sound patronizing — they're human beings, for God's sake!
They have a lot more wisdom than any of us in this room, frankly, and I
just thought, let's see if we can do this.
So the challenge right there was to make that story. In fact, I went
back and looked at my original proposal recently, and apart from the
deaths — which obviously we didn't anticipate — it's the movie that
you've got there, or very similar. I knew we were going to be absolutely
unflinching about certain aspects — really look at the fun things like
sex. People don't talk about the taboo, but why the hell shouldn't they
have sex, and why can't they talk about it? They have organs like the
rest of us, so why the hell can't they?
I just thought, that's sickness, we'll talk about somebody who can't
walk properly, because they've got spinal stenosis like Stan Goldman.
We'll talk about death as well. I had every intention, and in fact I had
interviews of many of the chorus talking about death experiences in
their own families, or near-death experiences themselves, which would
certainly have been in the film but for the fact that people actually
died in the film. That, of course, is what took over, because suddenly
you're in the now rather than retrospective.
But I also knew it had to be fun, because these people were fun, too.
One of the things I've worked on in my own films over the last four or
five years, is that I do move from comedy to pathos very quickly because
I think that you do need to find the comedy and the pathos, and the
pathos and the comedy. I think both work really strongly, as they do in
real life, when they're actually joined at the hip.
music videos adds so much of a dynamic to the film...
Absolutely. I didn't direct the music videos, Sally did. I was going to
direct the music videos, and what actually happened was, I was swamped
with 140 hours of material. I mean, we storyboarded them very closely
together and worked on them really closely together. But actually in the
end, I said, "Sally, I just can't do this." So we worked on them, she
flew out; she's a really good director. We work pretty closely together,
kind of very 18th-rate Coen Brothers, but it works really well like that
— we kind of always think as one. So we very quickly worked out that we
wanted to think of really interesting ways of standing out of time. I
had been really influenced by a lot of different [music videos], but I
love [music videos] just for the kind of glamorous style. It's really
just fun how you can take music and do stylized things with it.
There was also a very successful series, a drama series back in the '90s
in Britain, which I think came here, called "The Singing Detective" —
this guy has cirrhosis and he's in a hospital and suddenly you're across
a cut and you're into a music video type world. I always thought, God,
what a great opportunity, to step out of time. I never wanted this to be
a classic observational documentary. I knew that I wanted to make the
And the reason I wanted to make the film authored was because I knew
that the way to work with these people was to treat them like I would
treat anybody, and like I treated my parents and my grandparents or
their friends. That is to say — I wouldn't say these are my parents —
come on, Steve, tell us about your sex life.
Once you're into that kind of dialogue, you're a personal friend. You're
not into that kind of interview with somebody up against a bookcase with
a potted plant and a lampshade behind them, and they just magically
speak from questions you never really hear, you're in it and you have to
be honest about that. So I knew that was one thing I wanted to change
about classical observational narrative documentaries. But I also knew
that these videos would be really an exciting part of it by stepping out
We worked them out. We thought — there's Eileen in her old people's
home, why don't we move from an old people's home into a real Punk
protest song, [The Ramones'] "I Wanna Be Sedated"? Some of these guys
are sitting in an old people's home, it's the true punk song, what
they're really saying is, don't treat us like this, and they're singing
it angrily. It's got an edge to it; it's not cutesy-wootsy. Invariably,
large audiences applaud when they see that because they're totally not
expecting it, it comes out of nowhere, which we really liked. So we
worked those things out.
[The Talking Heads'] "Road to Nowhere" was a very interesting one to
place — and it was something I felt very strongly about. It was one
evening, and I remember saying, "You know if we're being really bold
about this, we should start that song in a hospital and we should start
it while this guy, Bob Salvini, is being put in an ambulance. We should
do that because that is the road that he and all of us are on, and these
people sing with joy about that."
They're actually smiling as they talk about it, you know, and here's a
guy — whatever happens it's a good life — if he makes it to the concert,
that's great, if he doesn't, that's not a tragedy, actually, but it's
very sad. So we did that, and then we looked at it, and we thought
"Gosh, have we gone too far on this?" So just to be absolutely sure we
weren't going to be doing something that was absolutely tasteless, I did
send that to Bob Cilman, and also to the Salvini family. I said you've
got to let me know if you're comfortable with this. They both came back
and said they really liked it.
So, okay if the family is happy, the musical director's happy, and I'm
happy aesthetically, it's okay. If some audiences think we are — which
actually nobody's said so far — then they can deal with that. But as a
filmmaker I felt comfortable that I hadn't actually trespassed on a
private world. Equally, you've got to be very careful with grief,
because we made the decision not to film on that bus when the
announcement of Bob Salvini's death was made. I felt very strongly that
is actually crossing the line, when people are hearing about somebody's
death the first time — to hear it with a shot of the bus but to see the
grief in a shot of their faces with a camera. It's just wrong. Other
people might do it, but I wouldn't do it, I just feel you cross the
What did pitching Bob entail?
Pitching Bob was an interesting one... I made this film as the director,
and Sally is the producer; she is also my wife and we worked very
closely together on this film. It's actually the first time we've worked
together, which is in itself an interesting experiment because at three
o clock in the morning, instead of doing more interesting things, we
actually sat having meetings in bed, which is disastrous, really. But
nevertheless we love each other dearly.
And we have what then was a 13-year-old daughter, and we took her to see
this show. We loved it and she hated it. That is a really hard age to
see grandparent-type people jumping up and down and singing rock songs —
you're just trying to be really cool at that age. It plays very well to
college students, actually — even 17, or 18 years-old and upwards are
fine. But at 13, you just can't... It's really difficult to get that age
group. So after the show was over, we started to kind of mill around.
We tried to get to Bob, but it was impossible because he was surrounded
by all kinds of well wishers. So we ended up talking to his amazing
assistant, Diane Porcella, who, although she's technically the
administrator, basically keeps the whole thing [together]… He's the
genius, and she enables the genius to happen, so she's incredible.
So we talked to her. What I didn't know then was, they had nine other
production companies and HBO, all kinds of people, after them at that
time. And there was little us, rapidly going broke with a new production
company, working out of our kitchen at times, and desperately looking
for an idea. We went up and said we thought the show was wonderful. What
chance and all the rest of it, and Diane was playing it quite cool
because she had all these offers from much bigger companies than us —
HBO, for god's sake — and we were small. Then she turned to Kitty, our
daughter, and said "What did you think of the show?"
And Kitty said, "I hated it. I thought it was really embarrassing." And
that's the moment... Diane told me that was the moment she decided we
were the right people to go with. Because she felt — and this was her
logic — that if our daughter was able to be that honest in front of us,
then we could be trusted, because [Kitty], knowing that this was
potentially a gig for us, felt comfortable enough that she could just
say that. Now if you asked Diane, she felt "That was okay, because they
brought this kid up to say what she feels and she thinks, and that's
exactly what we need here. We don't want to be lied to, we want to know
how [the people who would direct this would] feel." I was amazed when
Diane told me that a year or two later.
Has your daughter come around?
She adores them now. She thinks they're great. She's two years older
than she was then. She thinks they're great all the time. Because I went
"Oh God! thanks, Kitty, that's really great, Christmas forget it"
How has this changed you?
I've become very close to these people. I could give you the banal, pat
answer. I did that once in a Q&A, and I really hated myself afterwards —
and I lay in bed and I said, what the fuck was I doing giving that
answer? The banal answer is it's changed me because I realize there's
hope and inspiration in these people and therefore my life, etc. etc.
and I must call my parents more often, there's that side of it.
But the truth is, what this has actually done, I've really grown to like
these people. I've spent a lot of time with them and I've gone back to
see them again and again. I really try when I'm over here to see them.
These have become friends. Fred Knittle and his wife have adopted Sally
and me. He said "you're now our adopted children," which means we get
fed a lot when we go over there, and they are the most incredible
people. I know that for me to try and define or delineate how this has
changed me is ludicrous.
What I do know is that it has. What I also know is, the way it has is
not likely to be clear or felt, really, for another 20 or 30 years, if I
get that far. The fact is, this film will be a very distant memory; but
the impact of what I've been through with these people will have an
impact on me in some way, and it really does and they really do mean a
lot to me.
When we went to Los Angeles last year, we won the audience award.
Suddenly every studio wanted the film and they all bid for it. It was
all terribly exciting. We had that kind of amazing,
husband-and-wife-from-Hammersmith in London and suddenly we find
ourselves in the middle of a bidding war. It's an amazing experience,
and we were really out of our depth. We work first for television, and
with that we just humble along and deal with our overdraft and our
mortgage like everybody else, and that was an amazing experience.
When I flew back to Northampton and was told that Eileen was very
unwell, I went to see her with Diane, and then, three days later, I was
due to fly back to London. I was on my way back to London, heading to
the airport from Northampton to Boston's Logan Airport, and I had this
really strong feeling that I had to stop by and see Eileen again. I
tried to ignore it: "come on, you're going to miss my flight" but that
voice goes "fuck off, go see her now" and so I did. This was just after
I was at her hospital bed and she was morphined out of her mind. The
doctor said that she could hear me and understand me. I was with her for
about an hour and I remember stroking her hair — she has this amazing
white hair — and I remember saying, I was so glad I did this. I remember
saying to her — it's so corny I'm really embarrassed about saying this —
I said to her, "You know, you're going to be a movie star. You're going
to be up there on that screen forever." I said, "It's there, Eileen.
You're going to go on and the audience is going to love you and they're
going to keep loving you forever."
I told her that and kissed her goodbye, and two days later she was dead.
But I absolutely know that she heard that. I'm so pleased I did that,
because you can't go back when they're dead, you just can't. I just
thought that in a way that defines the relationship, if that makes some
sense. I find it easier to define things through concrete examples
rather than generalities.
She was such a star onscreen.
She was an amazing person. I had a real issue there [over whether] I
should put that caption at the end, should I not put that caption at the
end. I thought, gosh you know, I could go on a real high here, because
they've just had this great thing, this concert. I went, you know,
Steven — I talk to myself a lot, but I remember the dialogue was this,
actually — this is really what it's about, and what you're really saying
is, this is a life well lived. She opens the film and she closes the
film. This is true to the philosophy that I always felt was central to
the film, which was, we have to be unflinching about this. There is
mortality, we are all going to die, all of us, but that doesn't mean
that the manner of our lives can't be amazing and also our deaths, too.
And I think she had a good death.
How did you decide what to cut out and what will be added to the DVD?
It was the toughest edit I've ever done in my life. As I was saying in
an earlier interview, the reviews have been wonderful on this film,
which has been great. But I remember one reviewer said somewhere — and
he really did like the film — but he said, "It was all very well that
Stephen Walker could just turn on the camera and off he went and started
filming this thing. It was just that easy."
Hardly. The truth is it was two months of pre-production and then 140
hours of material and then we cut it. And if you think about the
elements in this film, you've got five or six front characters you have
to empathize with, otherwise you don't care about any of it. You've got
a whole chorus that you can't lose sight of in the background.
You've got four music videos that have to be placed, not arbitrarily but
so they're actually commenting on what's going on. You've got five songs
that have to be tracked all the way through to a concert, so when they
step up to sing [James Brown's] "I Feel Good" you're on the edge of your
seat thinking it's going to be a car crash. That's really manufactured.
We are quite manipulative with the audience about how we actually get
you to that point. We've got two deaths to put in there as well. I mean,
one is difficult enough; but then a second one, that'd feel like,
frankly, an anti-climax, to make that really matter as well.
It's very interesting that if you deconstruct it, you only have three
interviews, three moments where we interview Joe, the second guy who
dies in the film, but you think you know him, and when he dies, it
matters. But actually if you take any of those out or position them
differently, you don't even know that he dies, it's not quite clear who
he is or that he's died. So all of that has to be carefully and
painstakingly constructed out of 140 hours into a film that this
reviewer said is so simple — which is a great compliment, in a way.
There's a huge amount going on underneath that, of actually one million
doors and which is the right door that doesn't lead to a million more
but takes you in the right [direction]. This could have been a disaster
easily, actually, and it's wonderful to us to see that for whatever
reason, at least for most people, it seems to be working.
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