A vibrant and vivacious Young@Heart

Posted: April 02, 2008

Eileen Hall, 92, is one salty bird. The London-born thrush, a self-proclaimed lover of show tunes, croaks a killer version of "Should I Stay or Should I Go?"

Her rendition of the Clash's 1981 punk plea - the thrust of which is, are we hooking up tonight, baby, or what? - opens .

The vibrant and vivacious documentary about a chorus of Massachusetts seniors, frisky fogies with an unlikely playlist, opens the 17th annual Philadelphia Film Festival Thursday night.

Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," Prince's "Nothing Compares 2 U" and Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia" are among their must-hears. The movie takes its name from the group.

Because I'd seen the coming attractions for the film, I had prepared myself for a one-note, one-joke spectacle of Golden Oldsters singing not-quite golden oldies, pop tunes the grandkids might listen to.

Nothing prepared me for the unexpected resonance of this life-affirming, death-defying group portrait. Their advanced years have the effect of rejuvenating the lyrics and meaning of every number.

"I Feel Good" suggests one thing when James Brown belts it. But when creaky-jointed, cane-carrying elders - one of whom is attached to a breathing machine that makes its own percussive rhythm - sing it, the song suggests so many more things, including geriatric pep.

It took a production team from Britain's Channel 4 to shine a light on this undersung, as it were, group from Northampton, Mass., the brainchild of Bob Cilman, a low-key arts administrator who knows that music is a fountain of youth.

He also knows that his choir members prefer classical music to Coldplay. (Some of them plug their ears with cotton while singing.) But he quietly maintains that exposing them to newer music takes them out of the past and into the present.

Director Stephen Walker narrates this chronicle of the group as it rehearses new material for a public performance. His forced exuberance - the practiced chatshow-host tone which some affect when speaking to the elderly, infants and puppies - comes across initially as cloying, not to mention patronizing.

But as the film progresses, Walker's manufactured ebullience gives way to genuine awe, which is contagious. He may tease the choristers with tea-party prattle. But he also catches them at revealing moments that illustrate how the chorus line serves as a lifelife and social connection. Literally and metaphorically, Walker lets his subjects be heard.

Not every member of the chorus makes it through to opening night. But there is no doubt that they are all there in spirit.

Intercut through the film are four Young@Heart music videos - "Staying Alive" the most poignant and "I Wanna Be Sedated" the funniest. Deservedly, they are popular attractions on YouTube.

Young@heart ***1/2 (Out of four stars)

Produced by Sally George, directed by Stephen Walker. With Joe Benoit, Helen Boston, Stan Goldman, Eileen Hall, Fred Knittle. Distributed by Fox Searchlight

Running time: 1 hour, 48 mins.

Parent's guide: PG (life and death)

Showing at: Prince Music Theater tonight at 6 p.m. and 8:30 pm.

Contact movie critic Carrie Rickey at 215-854-5402 or crickey@phillynews.com. Read her blog, Flickgrrl, at http:go.philly.com/flickgrrl/

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