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Saturday, May 3, 2008

Rock of Ages (Young@Heart)

Old folks in concert

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You might think the notion of a bunch of septuagenarians and octogenarians belting out cover versions of rock ’n’ roll tunes sounds hopelessly schmaltzy. You wouldn’t be alone.

Stephen Walker, the director of Young@Heart, says he chuckled at the irony of his initial reaction. When his wife approached him with the idea of hearing a concert by the group,Walker recoiled at the prospect and told her, “That sounds awful.”

“I had little interest in the concert,” Walker says. “I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was a gimmick or it might be karaoke.” However, Walker’s wife persisted and he begrudgingly attended a sold-out show in London.

The experience won him over. “It was a packed house at the Lyric Theatre, which seats about a thousand people,” he says. “All ages were there, from kids to 80-year-olds to baby boomers.”

During the concert, Walker says he experienced an epiphany: “I was looking at music I knew in a whole different way. I came out of the show revved up.”

The 46-year-old Walker decided that the Northampton, Mass.-based group would constitute ideal subject matter for a documentary. “I thought that it offered a look at old age through the prism of rock music,” he notes.

First, he had to obtain the approval of the group’s choral director, Bob Cilman. “Actually, nine other companies had approached him about filming the group,” Walker says. “There had already been some projects featuring Young@Heart, including a segment on “20/20” and a short Belgian film that really didn’t focus on the music.”

Cilman was reluctant at the beginning, but he eventually relented. Walker, who received funding from Britain’s Channel 4, ended up shooting 140 hours of footage over the course of seven weeks. The Young@Heart group consists of two-dozen members, but Walker decided to narrow the scope of the documentary.

“It was important to focus on four or five members, but not lose focus of the entire group,” he says.

Walker had simple criteria for selecting which members would merit special attention. “They had to be wildly distinctive,” he says. “They were so strong. It became clear when we met them.”

In addition to the group members, Choral Director Cilman emerges as an interesting character in his own right.

“He’s tough, but he’s a great guy,” Walker notes. “He knows they have to make great music. He’s got to be tough because he’s an artist, not a social worker.”

The film effectively marries levity with an examination of some sobering topics. In the course of making the documentary, several chorus members died, which made for a daunting challenge while editing the film.

“I always feel that pathos is pathetic in a film if there is no humor in it and I feel humor is not funny if there is no pathos,” Walker says. “If we evaded the big issues, it would have been tedious and patronizing. When we edited the film, it was like walking a tightrope between humor and poignancy. It’s an incredibly dangerous tightrope to walk, because you can so easily fall off it. Then, it’s a sick joke and doesn’t work at all.”

Walker was convinced that Young@Heart had the potential to reach a wider audience than it would receive on British television, so he decided to enter the film into the 2006 Los Angeles Film Festival. Walker’s hunch proved wise when the film garnered the Audience Award for Best International Feature. The enthusiastic response prompted Fox Searchlight to acquire Young@Heart for theatrical distribution.

“I never set out to make a message film,” Walker says. “People take away an inspirational message, though, that getting old is not hopeless and these people can offer so much to society. Their energy level is extraordinary and they’re always in search of new challenges.

“I had no idea that people of this age could live like this,” he adds.