It's Been Real
Young @ Heart
It's Been Real sets out to examine and analyze the documentary in all of its forms, looking at differing forms of expression, variant approaches to subject matter, and at our unending tendency to dramatize true events as a way of understanding our engagement with them.

"It's got a lot of life. And that's what we have. A lot of life."-Steve

There's a question that must at some point go into every documentary ever made, and enter prominently into any serious discussion of the genre: how close should a documentarian get to their subject? We've already discussed what I've termed the docuMEntary, which tends to put the director center stage and thus sort of avoids the question of objectivity entirely. And just last installment we discussed the distracting distance between Leni Reifenstahl and her subjects in Triumph of the Will, where I felt that more connection with a narrative would have made for a stronger film overall. The balance between wanting to get in close when examining a subject, and keeping enough distance to maintain an honest perspective and to occasionally ask the hard questions that need asking is a difficult one. And while this isn't the first time we've dealt with the question, and it certainly won't be the last, Young @ Heart provides an excellent opportunity to look at this question.

The film, directed by Stephen Walker, follows the titular senior citizens' chorus (where the average age is 80) as they prepare a brand new show. From the first, it's clear that Walker won't be keeping his distance; in his introductory voice-over, he remarks that documenting the chorus was like picking up dozens of new grandparents. This provides some great moments, as his interactions and developing relationships with members of the chorus lead to some nice windows into colorful characters, whether he is flirting with Eileen, the chorus' 92-year-old leading lady or sitting down to breakfast with the 86-year-old Lenny.

Yet his presence in the film is ultimately an unnecessary one, and his occasionally cloying or condescending voice over actively detracts from some of the most emotional parts of the movie. The film, with its heartwarming and life-affirming subject matter didn't need any added sap, nor did it need a strong authorial presence to fill in the blanks in the story. There is no question that Steven Walker meant well, and it is clear that his affection for the people he is filming is genuine, but his efforts at humor often pale in comparison to the jokes of his subjects and he very often comes off as a distraction. Oddly, the one person it seems he should have spent more time trying to understand, the chorus' taskmaster of a leader Bob Cilman, is the person who seems least fully developed by the film's end. Perhaps Walker felt it would be crossing a line to ask Cilman if he really thought teaching confused (and none too pleased) seniors Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" was broadening their horizons or just imposing his own artistic taste, but it's a question that remains frustratingly unanswered by the time the credits roll.

Fortunately, Walker can't stand in his own way too much, as he has landed on a goldmine of a story that is by turns hilarious and heart wrenching. When dealing with a chorus whose average age is 80, the specter of death is bound to linger, and the loss of some members of the chorus adds several poignant moments to the film, most memorably when an intended duet to Coldplay's "Fix You" becomes a harrowing solo as a tribute to lost members.


However, even in the darkest moments of the film, the members of the chorus stay upbeat. Many times throughout the film various chorus members talk about how singing keeps them youthful and helps them fight back their worries about mortality, and every one of them mentions that even once they die, the show must go on. When one member who is especially beloved passes away just one week before the show, it clearly gets to the group and several break down in tears, but Eileen holds her head high and talks about how the man, who had been a close friend of hers for years, wouldn't want anyone to slow down and would want the chorus to put on the best possible show in his honor.

The film has its imperfections, most prominently in Walker's problematic presence, but also in the use of some of the group's music videos, which in the right context might seem irreverent but here come off as condescending and a tad cheesy. None of these flaws manage to bring Young @ Heart down, though, and the film itself seems as resolute and unflappable as its subjects. The Young @ Heart chorus believes in the power of music to be life affirming, and after watching this endearingly imperfect documentary, there's a good chance you'll come around to their point of view. And if not, hey, how often do you see a 92-year-old woman belting out The Clash?

Read more It's Been Real here

Coming up on It's Been Real:

1/8: March of the Penguins

1/22: Man with the Movie Camera

2/5: Political Documentary Month: The War Room

2/19: Political Documentary Month: Street Fight
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