film

A last waltz on walkers and oxygen

'I Want to be Sedated' turns into a different kind of punk anthem when the singer is 93

Brian D. Johnson April 21 2008
film

A last waltz on walkers and oxygen

'I Want to be Sedated' turns into a different kind of punk anthem when the singer is 93

Brian D. Johnson April 21 2008

A last waltz on walkers and oxygen

'I Want to be Sedated' turns into a different kind of punk anthem when the singer is 93

film

BRIAN D. JOHNSON

When you film a documentary, you hope for the unexpected. Up to a point. When the makers of Gimme Shelter shot the Rolling Stones’ Altamont concert in 1970, cameras captured the killing of a black teenager brandishing a gun in front of the stage; a music doc turned into a milestone that marked the death of the hippie dream. Young@Heart is about a rock act even older than the Stones are today—performers in their 70s, 80s and 90s, whose repertoire includes Jimi Hendrix, the Clash, David Bowie, Sonic Youth, Coldplay and the Talking Heads. But what started out as a sweet, funny film about geriatric rockers took on an unintended gravi tas when two of its stars died days before the group’s climactic concert. It was decided the show must go on. And the film deepened into a poignant drama of mortality, loss, perseverance and triumph— everything, in other words, that Hollywood spends millions trying to simulate.

Death is nothing new to the Young@Heart Chorus, whose membership has the brisk turnover of a nursing home. Based in Northhampton, Mass., this music theatre troupe has been singing, acting and touring in various incarnations for a quarter-century. In that time, some 70 members have died. Bob Cilman, the group’s 55-year-old founder and director, who has watched them all come and go, is sanguine about it. “Sometimes people are performing to the last moment,” he says. “It’s hard because you’re not prepared. But at least they didn’t have to go through that period of decaying in hospitals. They just went. There’s something poetic about that. What I can always console myself with is that I was with these people at an amazing time at the end of their life when they were doing

something as exciting as anything they did in the whole of their life.”

Now opening commercially after galvanizing the festival circuit for the past year, Young@Heart is the kind of crowd-pleaser that has audiences laughing, crying and even dancing in the aisles. It finds its most avid audiences on college campuses. Seniors, oddly enough, are not a good demographic, Cilman has learned, because they don’t know the songs and don’t get the irony. “If you have an audience of all old people,” he says, “it can be completely deadly.”

The movie covers seven weeks in the life of the chorus, as they struggle to learn new songs for a hometown performance specially mounted for the film. The material, strategically selected by Cilman, takes on new meaning coming from the mouths of seniors. When 92-year-old Eileen Hall belts out Should I Stay or Should I Go? by the Clash, a song about a relationship turns into an elder anthem about life and death. A few numbers are hysterically appropriate, such as Bowie’s Golden Years and the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive. The film’s British director, Steven Walker, also created some music videos for the film, including one for the Ramones’ I Wanna Be Sedated, which he shot in an old-age home.

“I Wanna Be Sedated is my least favorite of the videos,” says Cilman, “because it does

come across as a gimmick. There’s a line you have to be careful of and every once in a while we teeter on it with stuff that tends to be more comic than soulful.” But Walker insists the nursing-home video of Sedated isn’t just a joke. “It’s a punk song sung by 80-year-olds with edge and anger and protest about what it’s like to be in those sorts of places.”

Cilman initially discouraged Walker’s bid to make a movie. Having built the chorus from scratch, he treats them as serious artists, not a novelty act. And he’s protective of them, especially when confronted with a English director/interviewer who swoops in for a few weeks and tends to patronize the old folks with too many cute questions. Before becoming Young@Heart’s impresario, Cilman was a fixture in Northampton’s art colony, doing everything from playing in a band called the Self-Righteous Brothers to portraying a gay Ulysses in a feminist musical. He also worked as a projectionist, which wasn’t paying the bills. So he took a job running a meal service for seniors, and soon he was directing singalongs. Since then, his chorus has evolved into a professional troupe that has taken critically acclaimed tours of Europe.

Some members of the chorus perform with walkers, and one singer’s breath control involves an oxygen tank. But no one had died for two years. Right after the first death, the chorus was booked to play a concert in a prison yard, where they sang Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. Hardened criminals wept. M