The new documentary Young@Heart is the first indie crowd pleaser of the year, a surprising and uplifting look at sustaining a lust for life and laughing at the idea of acting your age. The Young@Heart Chorus is a group of performers in their seventies, eighties, and nineties who sing an eclectic mix of rock, punk, and pop songs. Led by chorus director Bob Cilman, this Northampton, Massachusetts, group has become a phenomenon in their hometown, as well as all over Europe. I recently sat down with Cilman, film director Stephen Walker, and chorus members Steve Martin and Stan Goldman.
How did this idea to film this group of people come about?
Stephen Walker: I was in London and my producer/wife Sally George said to me one day, “There is an incredible performance coming up and we should go and see it to consider making it a possible film.” So we went. : It was an absolutely packed house because they’re well known in Europe : and every age group is there. One of the songs that I particularly remember was “Should I Stay or Should I Go” from The Clash, which had a shock value, obviously. We just thought this was extraordinary. Obviously, the song was not just about relationships anymore when sung by a chorus of people in their eighties and nineties-it was a song about life or death. I can remember at the end the lead singer shouted out, “Should I stay or should I go” and the whole audience shouted back, “Stay!” I remember thinking, “Gosh, this is extraordinary,” and we walked out of the theater thinking, “There could be an amazing film here,” where you can explore all those difficult questions about old age, and you do it through music, and music that people can identify with. We then had to convince Bob Cilman, which was difficult.
Bob, why were you so opposed to the film?
Bob Cilman: It wasn’t something we were looking to do at all. What this group does and does so well is perform live in front of people, and that’s the mission of this group, and that’s what we’ve always wanted to do. So cameras can be a little bit difficult for us. We have to do it a lot because when we perform in Europe : you do news stories, and that kind of stuff. : But the idea of doing it for six weeks straight and making a two-hour movie was scary, to tell you the truth. But our minds met at some place, and we decided to go ahead and do it and I’m glad we did.
How difficult was it to have all of these cameras around you?
Steve Martin: There’s one word with Bob. Focus. He says, “Okay, look, don’t ham the camera. We’ve got things to do. We’ve got more important things to do. Forget the camera.” And he just beat us into submission to a point where we do not care where the camera or the boom is. Is that accurate, Bob?
Stan Goldman: (Laughing.) I’m still bruised from the beatings.
Stephen, did you have an idea once you started filming where the arc was going to be?
Walker: We had about two months beforehand where we met all the members of the chorus, got to know them, spoke about their lives, and also spent a lot of time talking to Bob about songs they were going to rehearse. We very quickly came up with this idea of a big show there in Northampton. It made sense to do it in the hometown. So we knew that was an arc we were heading toward. We also came across the performance at the jail, as they had an invitation to that. So there was a lot of planning that went on before we started to film. : But obviously the really big events, the ones that took place were the ones that nobody anticipated at all: the death of two chorus members. But it came out of nowhere.
Was there some stuff that you could not shoot?
Walker: Yeah, it’s actually written in the contract.
Cilman: It became a really tricky issue when [the two chorus members] died because that was so unexpected for us, because we really believed [one member] when he told us he would be around for 10 more years. So when he died : we shut down. I shut down. We had some issues around that, around what was appropriate and what wasn’t appropriate. But : what you see is a beautiful song performed by Patsy, and then the chorus just comes in and it’s an amazing moment in the film where she just sings. It’s what the choir does when somebody dies. I think they’ve made a really good choice there. I don’t think anything else would have made more sense.
Martin: I just want to add that, since 1982 when Bob [Cilman] formed the chorus, 60 of us have passed away. But our attitude is “yes, we’ve got something to live for.” We understand reality. And it’s gonna happen. But we say, “Drag us off the stage with a hook.”
Stan, how do you feel when he comes up with the choices that he has and he gives you those songs?
Goldman: Quite candidly, I’m not a rocker and I never was. I’m a jazz man, classical music, and the Great American Songbook. And Broadway theater. But this has given me, quite frankly, a very new dimension to interpret something that is very arcane to me, something very esoteric. And I love it. I love doing new things. : And I’m very appreciative of the fact that Bob Cilman gave me this opportunity to engage myself in something that was really unfamiliar to me. I thank him for that, and it’s a great group to be with. It’s a very cohesive group-very friendly-and it’s a nice little community.
Young@Heart opens this weekend in Santa Barbara theaters.