Director Stephen Walker Celebrates Being Young@Heart
Director Stephen Walker Celebrates Being
by Brad Balfour
Of the many surprises at this year’s Sundance Film Festival, one of the most charming was a little doc called Young@Heart. Filmed over a several months’ rehearsal period leading up to a concert tour, veteran British director Stephen Walker and his wife, producer Sally George, tell the story of the Young at Heart Chorus based in Northhampton, MA.
Given that Sundance is thought to be the mega-festival for the cutting edge of indie film, this documentary of people growing old with dignity — still enthusiastic for learning things and accomplishing new challenges before an audience not just of peers, but of all ages — was downright inspiring and an important treatise on coping with aging.
The film details their struggle to overcome physical adversities in order to learn the songs and actually make the tour. Going against the stereotype of this age group — whose average age is 81 — music director Bob Cilman (who is in his early 50s) gets them to perform rock and soul songs by the likes of James Brown, Sonic Youth and The Rolling Stones. Over 25 years ago, Cilman had been hired to work with this community of seniors at a local assisted living apartment complex, where he got the idea over lunch at the senior center.
Since that time, this chorus has included World War I vets, elderly comedians, former Broadway performers, classical musicians and vaudeville performers. Given that turn-over is inevitable, Cilman decided not to draw on songs from their own generation but ones that would be entirely fresh to them, those from Cilman’s generation and more.
Over the years, the group has established quite a following. They have toured Europe and sang for royalty, and released CDs of their performances (there is a new live one out now on their own label, Mostly Live). Though they have been subject of other films for television, this full-length feature focuses on how they prepared new songs for a concert in their home town — not an easy endeavor — which succeeds despite several heartbreaking events. The group is so compelling that, notwithstanding Cilman’s own strong personality (he now heads the local arts council as well), they become richly defined characters in their own right.
In fact, the four that came to New York to debut the film — Stephen Martin, Stanley Goldman, Patricia Linderme and Jeanne Hatch — were so engaging that it was worth seeing them at the Q&A at their premiere public screening — something that’s recommended if the opportunity affords itself. And given the talk even now of this being a Best Doc Oscar possibility, there should be more chances to see members of Young at Heart not only on the screen but live as well.
Younger people have misconceptions about seniors; they can be pretty perky like the folks in this film. That’s one of the things that people get from this film. For us, it’s really quite overwhelming, and I often find it hard to put into words. We’ve had a lot of screenings since the Los Angeles Film Festival [where the film premiered]; we won the audience award, which was great — the audience really loved it. Then we took it to Sundance, and since then we’ve been on this tour. God, the reactions we’re getting from audiences, particularly when the audiences get big, have been absolutely overwhelming as well.
I just sit here thinking that this is way beyond anything I created here, and it’s not even me, actually. It’s them, and that’s something, because they aren’t actors, these are real people which I documented. There’s something so remarkable about them, and I’m just delighted that somehow we managed to capture that on film.
It’s clearly reaching out to audiences in a really extraordinary way, particularly when the chorus [members] come on stage for the Q&A at the end. Entire audiences get to their feet, and I’m told that doesn’t happen very often. People are connecting on all kinds of levels. There are people who’ve got parents [this age] — I’m in that situation too — and there are people who are younger, who are thinking about grandparents. There are people who are loving the music because it’s great fun, or enjoying these people’s characters. And there are people who are addressing their own mortality.
I hope the film is allowing people to address their own mortality — and this sounds so corny that I kind of hate saying it — with some sort of hope in there as well. Here are possibilities, ways to live your life. Although I hate the idea of a message film — because I think the important thing is to just make a good film. It’s implicit all the way through the story.
There’s another film out now called Hats Off about a 93-year-old woman who became as an actress at 65 when her husband died. Especially if you include the new Rolling Stones concert film (which is of post-60 year-olds still rocking), is this a mini-trend of films happening? What were your perceptions going into the film, how did they change and what do you think about the idea of this being part of a trend? I can speak for Britain. I can’t really speak for America, though I know this country quite well since I was educated here and this is a world I feel pretty comfortable in. But it would be presumptuous of me to speak of Americans because I don’t live here now. I do live in Britain and do think that two things are happening. One, there is a kind of reexamination of old age, and [two], that people are more and more starting to get bored with [this] youth obsession, with that celebrity obsession, and you’re finding it more and more. There are a lot of articles coming out in newspapers in Britain about actually, “you know something, I’m fed up with this, it’s so much of it” and you know, it’s actually quite refreshing.
I have a shot in the film which I’m really proud of. It’s a shot of Eileen after the announcement of [chorus member] Bob Salvini’s death, the first person who dies in the film, and they get on this bus and they go to this prison to perform.
A lot of people talk about the prison performance, which is, I think, very moving. But there is this shot just before they start, of all of them lined up waiting to go into the courtyard, and there are these harsh fluorescent lights throughout the prison, and this shot that I did on Eileen’s face full of lines. There are a million, billion lines in her face, she looks like 170, and to me it’s a beautiful face. I really think she has a beautiful face — and I just hold the shot for ages. It’s a huge close-up. They’ve just heard this news [about his death], and you can see she’s registering what it all means when she’s standing there waiting to perform. To me, that shot speaks volumes.
This is not a woman who’s botoxed to the hilt, this is not somebody who’s trying to be young in that kind of plastic sense, but this is someone who’s genuinely young at heart, somebody whose spirit is young — and because it is, she’s able to embrace her age at the same time and not be frightened of it, not even to be frightened of death, which she talks about quite openly. She even tells us where she’s going to be when she dies: on a rainbow.
That’s amazing, and audiences respond really well to that. We’ve had so many people who come out of screenings and say, “I’m so sick of all these ‘bang ’em up, shoot ’em up’ movies, one after another, which is so anti-life in a way and here are these real people, living with real life and reaching out to us.” They find that inspirational, as I did, but I didn’t think anybody else would. It was when I was making [the film], but I was really shocked, and again — it’s one of those verbs I really hate using because it always looks awful — but actually it’s completely sincere, quite humbling actually, to see that response from others.
As a documentary filmmaker, you’re always piecing together what’s dramatic and drives a story from the material you collect. But those deaths were something couldn’t have been anticipated. Was there something else you focused on before death arrived and shifted the film? When I first saw the chorus in London I was incredibly excited by the challenge of [filming it]. I’d seen them before and I saw Eileen, amongst the many others, step up to the microphone and sing “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash. Great shock, amazing to watch, very funny, but it could be a one-trick pony. You know, “ha ha that’s great, isn’t that funny, goodbye, a five-minute news item, the end.”
But when I saw that — and you don’t have to be an Einstein to see it — [I realized] what you’re actually looking at is somebody singing about life and death. At the end of the song, when she calls out one more time “should I stay or should I go,” the audience all shout out “stay,” what they’re actually saying is “live” and I found that very moving. Of course, all their songs do that. When Lenny stands up and sings [Jimi Hendrix’s] “Purple Haze,” he’s not singing about drugs, he’s singing about dementia, and the fact that he can’t remember the words is actually part of the point.
“Road to Nowhere” is actually a celebration of being on that road to a place that is nowhere. It’s not clever-clever, but the songs are really good and they mean something. So I came out of that theatrical experience, saying to my producer Sally George, “this is an amazing opportunity to make a movie about old age like no movie that’s been made before” — because what we can do is a rock opera about old age. We can actually look at old age through the medium of rock music. Rock music people will know and identify with because they’ll know the words. And that immediately struck me as being an incredible challenge.
The music videos came out of that first conversation. I said, “You know, this is the way to sell it, because we’re never going to get a film about old age off the ground anywhere.” I had made films, actually, about old people before, different ones, and had close relations with my parents, and before that, my grandparents, and find that — and I hope this doesn’t sound patronizing — they’re human beings, for God’s sake! They have a lot more wisdom than any of us in this room, frankly, and I just thought, let’s see if we can do this.
So the challenge right there was to make that story. In fact, I went back and looked at my original proposal recently, and apart from the deaths — which obviously we didn’t anticipate — it’s the movie that you’ve got there, or very similar. I knew we were going to be absolutely unflinching about certain aspects — really look at the fun things like sex. People don’t talk about the taboo, but why the hell shouldn’t they have sex, and why can’t they talk about it? They have organs like the rest of us, so why the hell can’t they?
I just thought, that’s sickness, we’ll talk about somebody who can’t walk properly, because they’ve got spinal stenosis like Stan Goldman. We’ll talk about death as well. I had every intention, and in fact I had interviews of many of the chorus talking about death experiences in their own families, or near-death experiences themselves, which would certainly have been in the film but for the fact that people actually died in the film. That, of course, is what took over, because suddenly you’re in the now rather than retrospective.
But I also knew it had to be fun, because these people were fun, too. One of the things I’ve worked on in my own films over the last four or five years, is that I do move from comedy to pathos very quickly because I think that you do need to find the comedy and the pathos, and the pathos and the comedy. I think both work really strongly, as they do in real life, when they’re actually joined at the hip.
The music videos add so much of a dynamic to the film… Absolutely. I didn’t direct the music videos, Sally did. I was going to direct the music videos, and what actually happened was, I was swamped with 140 hours of material. I mean, we storyboarded them very closely together and worked on them really closely together. But actually in the end, I said, “Sally, I just can’t do this.” So we worked on them, she flew out; she’s a really good director. We work pretty closely together, kind of very 18th-rate Coen Brothers, but it works really well like that — we kind of always think as one. So we very quickly worked out that we wanted to think of really interesting ways of standing out of time. I had been really influenced by a lot of different [music videos], but I love [music videos] just for the kind of glamorous style. It’s really just fun how you can take music and do stylized things with it.
There was also a very successful series, a drama series back in the ’90s in Britain, which I think came here, called “The Singing Detective” — this guy has cirrhosis and he’s in a hospital and suddenly you’re across a cut and you’re into a music video type world. I always thought, God, what a great opportunity, to step out of time. I never wanted this to be a classic observational documentary. I knew that I wanted to make the film authored.
And the reason I wanted to make the film authored was because I knew that the way to work with these people was to treat them like I would treat anybody, and like I treated my parents and my grandparents or their friends. That is to say — I wouldn’t say these are my parents — come on, Steve, tell us about your sex life.
Once you’re into that kind of dialogue, you’re a personal friend. You’re not into that kind of interview with somebody up against a bookcase with a potted plant and a lampshade behind them, and they just magically speak from questions you never really hear, you’re in it and you have to be honest about that. So I knew that was one thing I wanted to change about classical observational narrative documentaries. But I also knew that these videos would be really an exciting part of it by stepping out of time.
We worked them out. We thought — there’s Eileen in her old people’s home, why don’t we move from an old people’s home into a real Punk protest song, [The Ramones’] “I Wanna Be Sedated”? Some of these guys are sitting in an old people’s home, it’s the true punk song, what they’re really saying is, don’t treat us like this, and they’re singing it angrily. It’s got an edge to it; it’s not cutesy-wootsy. Invariably, large audiences applaud when they see that because they’re totally not expecting it, it comes out of nowhere, which we really liked. So we worked those things out.
[The Talking Heads’] “Road to Nowhere” was a very interesting one to place — and it was something I felt very strongly about. It was one evening, and I remember saying, “You know if we’re being really bold about this, we should start that song in a hospital and we should start it while this guy, Bob Salvini, is being put in an ambulance. We should do that because that is the road that he and all of us are on, and these people sing with joy about that.”
They’re actually smiling as they talk about it, you know, and here’s a guy — whatever happens it’s a good life — if he makes it to the concert, that’s great, if he doesn’t, that’s not a tragedy, actually, but it’s very sad. So we did that, and then we looked at it, and we thought “Gosh, have we gone too far on this?” So just to be absolutely sure we weren’t going to be doing something that was absolutely tasteless, I did send that to Bob Cilman, and also to the Salvini family. I said you’ve got to let me know if you’re comfortable with this. They both came back and said they really liked it.
So, okay if the family is happy, the musical director’s happy, and I’m happy aesthetically, it’s okay. If some audiences think we are — which actually nobody’s said so far — then they can deal with that. But as a filmmaker I felt comfortable that I hadn’t actually trespassed on a private world. Equally, you’ve got to be very careful with grief, because we made the decision not to film on that bus when the announcement of Bob Salvini’s death was made. I felt very strongly that is actually crossing the line, when people are hearing about somebody’s death the first time — to hear it with a shot of the bus but to see the grief in a shot of their faces with a camera. It’s just wrong. Other people might do it, but I wouldn’t do it, I just feel you cross the line.
What did pitching Bob entail? Pitching Bob was an interesting one… I made this film as the director, and Sally is the producer; she is also my wife and we worked very closely together on this film. It’s actually the first time we’ve worked together, which is in itself an interesting experiment because at three o clock in the morning, instead of doing more interesting things, we actually sat having meetings in bed, which is disastrous, really. But nevertheless we love each other dearly.
And we have what then was a 13-year-old daughter, and we took her to see this show. We loved it and she hated it. That is a really hard age to see grandparent-type people jumping up and down and singing rock songs — you’re just trying to be really cool at that age. It plays very well to college students, actually — even 17, or 18 years-old and upwards are fine. But at 13, you just can’t… It’s really difficult to get that age group. So after the show was over, we started to kind of mill around.
We tried to get to Bob, but it was impossible because he was surrounded by all kinds of well wishers. So we ended up talking to his amazing assistant, Diane Porcella, who, although she’s technically the administrator, basically keeps the whole thing [together]… He’s the genius, and she enables the genius to happen, so she’s incredible.
So we talked to her. What I didn’t know then was, they had nine other production companies and HBO, all kinds of people, after them at that time. And there was little us, rapidly going broke with a new production company, working out of our kitchen at times, and desperately looking for an idea. We went up and said we thought the show was wonderful. What chance and all the rest of it, and Diane was playing it quite cool because she had all these offers from much bigger companies than us — HBO, for god’s sake — and we were small. Then she turned to Kitty, our daughter, and said “What did you think of the show?”
And Kitty said, “I hated it. I thought it was really embarrassing.” And that’s the moment… Diane told me that was the moment she decided we were the right people to go with. Because she felt — and this was her logic — that if our daughter was able to be that honest in front of us, then we could be trusted, because [Kitty], knowing that this was potentially a gig for us, felt comfortable enough that she could just say that. Now if you asked Diane, she felt “That was okay, because they brought this kid up to say what she feels and she thinks, and that’s exactly what we need here. We don’t want to be lied to, we want to know how [the people who would direct this would] feel.” I was amazed when Diane told me that a year or two later.
Has your daughter come around? She adores them now. She thinks they’re great. She’s two years older than she was then. She thinks they’re great all the time. Because I went “Oh God! thanks, Kitty, that’s really great, Christmas forget it” (laughter).
How has this changed you?