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April 7, 2008

Stardom a long time in the making

Boston Globe (MA):

In some ways it's a typical golden-years scene: two dozen senior citizens gathered at the Florence Community Center, just outside of Northampton, singing together. But these old-timers aren't scouring their memories for the words to a World War II-era favorite. They're learning Sonic Youth's noise-rock tune "Schizophrenia." And the scene is from a film, "Young@Heart," a documentary about the Massachusetts chorus of the same name. The movie began its unlikely trajectory two years ago as a British television special, became a surprise film festival hit, was picked up by a major US distributor, and will open in theaters nationwide April 18.

"The film is having success we never could have imagined," says chorus director Bob Cilman, who founded the singing group in 1982 as a way to break up the tedium at a housing project for low-income elderly where he worked. Over the last 25 years the Young@Heart chorus has transformed youth anthems into surprising - and surprisingly moving - commentaries on what it means to grow old.

Their repertoire includes the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated," the Bee Gees' "Stayin' Alive," Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven," and Bob Dylan's "Forever Young," and the chorus has become a staple at cutting-edge arts festivals in Europe.

But while the 27 members of Young@Heart - minimum age 73 - have traveled overseas more than a dozen times in the past decade, performing for sold-out houses in Rotterdam, Berlin, London, and Brussels, the group hasn't made much of an impression stateside. That's likely to change now that Fox Searchlight - the specialty film division that made hits out of "Juno" and "Little Miss Sunshine" - has picked up distribution rights to Young@Heart. "It's fun, but a little wearying on many levels," Cilman says of the attention.

He's on the phone from Los Angeles, one of 15 cities the chorus members will hit to promote the movie. Fatigue is no small issue, but according to Cilman they are having "the time of their lives." Three singers appear at each event, a rotation that will allow everyone the chance to participate. The entire chorus will perform in Newport, R.I., on April 27 at a special concert following a screening of the film. "Like a comet going across the sky," is how 79-year-old Steve Martin describes the experience.

Ensconced in a suite at the Four Seasons in Beverly Hills, Calif., Martin - who lives alone in a condo in Springfield - sounds positively giddy. "At this age we've had good things and bad things happen to us and you face life with a lot more reality," he says. "We know in our hearts that this is a one-time shot. It's the World Series and the Super Bowl and the Olympics rolled into one."

It was Cilman who turned a run-of-the-mill singalong into a special event by bringing rock music into the repertoire. Fox Searchlight stumbled on the film at the 2007 Los Angeles Film Festival, where it won a major audience award. Inspired by the emotional reaction there and at other festivals, the company decided to launch a good old-fashioned blitz of screenings and personal appearances, rather than an advertising campaign, to cultivate buzz.

"We saw what happened at the LA film fest when Bob and the chorus members came out - there was this amazing response," says Nancy Utley, an executive with Fox Searchlight. "It was so powerful, and we thought 'Why not try to replicate that?' "

British filmmaker Stephen Walker had long been interested in making a documentary about old age when he went, on a whim, to see the chorus perform in 2005 at a London theater. Walker was "blown away" when he heard the group sing Talking Heads' "Road to Nowhere." By the time Eileen Hall, then 92, had hollered her way through the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go," Walker was convinced that the Young@Heart chorus was the perfect vehicle to explore the subject of aging. "Nobody wants to talk about getting old, about taboo subjects like death and loneliness and sex, but I knew we could do it through music," Walker says.

Persuading Cilman was another matter. Still stinging from a poor-quality, ill-conceived film about the chorus made many years ago, as well as a 2000 feature for the television show "20/20" that never aired, Cilman was skeptical when approached by Walker and his wife and producing partner, Sally George. But the filmmakers were armed with a commission and financial backing from Britain's Channel Four as well as a solid documentary track record, and after much reluctance Cilman agreed to move ahead with the project. In 2006, Walker and his crew filmed for seven weeks in Northampton - at rehearsals, in homes, and in hospital rooms.

The process was bumpy from the start. "Initially we had a lot of struggle over what the film would be about," says Cilman, who is also executive director of the Northampton Arts Council. "They felt there needed to be some big payoff at the end, and my strong feeling was that they didn't need to create a challenge for us and bring us to New York or Boston to see if we make it or not. I said 'Come to Northampton, things will happen.'

After agreeing to focus on the struggle to learn new material, the film's course changed dramatically when longtime members Bob Salvini and Joe Benoit died within a week of each other. Salvini's death wasn't entirely unexpected, but Benoit's was a shock, and Cilman and Walker clashed over how to proceed. The filmmakers wanted to get emotional reactions on tape. Cilman wanted to protect his charges, and himself.

"They didn't need to see me sobbing and they didn't need to see us telling the chorus. The less said the better sometimes, and I do think they handled it beautifully," says Cilman. "There is no better eulogy for Joe," he adds, "than seeing Patsy [Linderme] singing 'Nothing Compares 2 U' " - a Prince song made famous by Sinead O'Connor.

Since the film was finished, Young@Heart has taken on seven new members, and they're busy working with their longtime collaborators from the experimental theater company No Theater on a performance piece commissioned by the Manchester International Festival for 2009.

Jan St. Laurence, a Northampton native who is about to celebrate her 80th birthday, skipped yesterday's three-hour rehearsal in Florence because she was under the weather. But she can't wait to get back up on stage. "People come up to me after shows and say, 'You know, I'm not as afraid to grow older,' " she says. "There is something here, in these years, if you want to find it."

Posted by acapnews at April 7, 2008 10:33 PM


How can I write to Bob Cilman, director of the chorus Young@Heart? I am a composer/songwriter and co-wrote a song I would like to submit to him for the group to sing. It's called "Quitters Never Win".

Hoping to hear from you.


Betsy M. Zavell

Posted by: Betsy M. Zavell at April 9, 2008 9:55 PM

What 15 cities are they visiting?

Posted by: Julie at April 16, 2008 6:23 AM

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