When British filmmaker Stephen Walker first agreed to listen to a chorus of retired Americans performing in London, England, he went strictly as a spectator.
“I had zero expectations,” says the director of Young@Heart, an uplifting documentary, on the line from Toronto. “My partner, Sally George, walked into our kitchen one day with a couple of tickets to a show called Road to Nowhere at the Lyric Theatre. It had great reviews, but I wondered what it was, really: a bunch of senior citizens singing rock and roll? Was it going to be embarrassing, like bad karaoke? Would it be patronizing? I was fully prepared to walk out after 10 minutes.”
George, who is also Walker’s producing partner, suspected that there might be some kind of story in how the Massachusetts old-timers called Young at Heart became a touring band. But, hey, no pressure!
“She said, ”˜It’s only one night of your life.’ And here it is, two-and-a-half years later.”
First off, the filmmaker was shocked to find that the place was packed, especially with young people.
“I had somehow imagined that the audience would be like 70-plus. But, of course, I was an idiot to imagine that, because the performance, like the film, plays across the whole spectrum. So it turns out to be this big sound, and really weird, interesting reinterpretations of songs I mostly knew. Bob Dylan’s ”˜Forever Young’ suddenly became something incredibly powerful when these people sang it. And ”˜Should I Stay or Should I Go?’ is obviously a song about life and death. Even ”˜Road to Nowhere’ takes on a meaning that wasn’t apparent in the original.”
Walker—a veteran of many BBC programs and the bestselling author of a historical novel called Shockwave: Countdown to Hiroshima—hung around to meet the performers after the show. He says he instantly recognized them as characters colourful enough to build a film around.
“I realized that what we had on our hands was basically a rock opera about old age. With the music, we could discuss all these things that never get talked about—loneliness and sickness and sex and death—and have a lot of fun along the way.”
He eventually talked to the choir’s director, Bob Cilman, and its members about shadowing them for a few months in their New England environment. What he ended up with was a TV special. When it aired in 2006, it ended up getting so much attention that Walker recut the program, originally seen with commercials, into a more integrated 107 minutes. That version (which opens in Vancouver on Friday [April 18] ) got invited to film festivals, and after it wowed audiences in Los Angeles last year, a bidding war erupted between distributors.
“The movie really has turned into a phenomenon, for all kinds of reasons—none of them all that expected, to be honest. I think people respond to the same thing we responded to when shooting the film: the sheer pleasure Bob has in introducing these songs to the choir members, and the fun they all get out of learning something new and doing it well.”
And that music bug is catching.
“At every single screening we’ve been to, in about 12 cities now in North America, people at the Q & As afterwards have all said the same thing: ”˜We should start something like this here.’ And you know what? It probably will happen.”
Given Walker’s background, it is understandable for some to think that the film is little more than an elaborate reality–TV spinoff.
“People think you just turn up one day with a camera and hope for the best. And aren’t you lucky that it just happens right in front of you? Actually, there were two months of preproduction, working out what the narrative was going to be. This is much more constructed, as a story.”
As you might imagine, Walker has stayed in touch with the members of the choir.
“Steve Martin is right next [to] me even as we speak,” he says, not meaning the white-haired comedian but a trucklike tenor in the group. “Steve and Stan and Dora and Miriam and the others [all viewable at youngat
heartchorus.com] are in town to help launch the movie in Toronto. Next week, they are performing in L.A.
“They travel a lot. In fact, they’ve been to Europe 16 times in the last year alone.”
The touring rockers, by the way, should not be confused with a British outfit seen widely on YouTube singing “My Generation”. It turns out that these old-timers, called the Zimmers, were not a preexisting choir but just a group put together to make a couple of videos. But because of the film’s long lead time, most North Americans saw the Zimmers first.
“Yes,” Walker says with a snort, “they were thrown together in a prefabricated imitation of Young at Heart. It was almost a tribute band, really.”
Which just goes to show that, if you’re good enough, you’re never too old to get your own Monkees.