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The Golden Years (Indeed)
by Mel Valentin on Apr 18, 2008
Stephen Walker’s heartfelt documentary, [email protected], opens with Eileen Hall, a featured member of the [email protected] chorus, singing (or rather speaking) The Clash’s “Should I Stay or Should I Go?” Swaying gently on her cane, the former war bride (a Brit who married a Yank) looks frail. She should. She was all of 92 when Walker first started filming [email protected]. Her rendition of The Clash’s song is quiet, almost meditative, but still drenched in emotion. It’s also, unsurprisingly, a crowd-pleaser, the perfect opening not just to the film, but to [email protected]’s London performance where Walker and his producing/life partner, Sally George, saw the [email protected] chorus for the first time in the fall of 2005.
After that particular performance, Walker and George met the director, Bob Cilman, and convinced him to let them follow the chorus over two months in the spring of 2006. Cilman, the director of the Young at Heart chorus, was instrumental in its formation more than twenty-five years ago. The chorus got its start at a Northampton senior center in 1982. Cilman became the director a year later and, since then, has guided the chorus through multiple tours of the United States and Europe, each time adding and subtracting songs derived from pop, rock, R&B and other, non-classical music genres, and all of them requiring weeks of intensive rehearsals for the chorus members to learn their respective parts and Cilman’s idiosyncratic take on the songs.
Cilman’s eclectic choices range from James Brown’s “I Feel Good", Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can”, the aforementioned Clash song, “Should I Stay or Should I Go?”, the Talking Heads’ “Road to Nowhere", David Bowie’s “Golden Years’ (probably the most predictable choice among many unpredictable ones), Prince’s “Nothing Compares to U", Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia", and the closing song, Coldplay’s “Fix You", sung by ex-chorus members who were forced to retire from the chorus due to chronic health problems. Besides Hall, the featured performers include Alan Arkin-look-alike Stan Goldman, Joseph Benoit, gifted with a strong voice and nimble memory, Bob Salvini, an Italian-American returning to the chorus for the first time in several years after a serious illness, and Fred Knittle, an ex-chorus member struggling with congestive heart failure.
At times, though, [email protected] feels like a BBC documentary, especially with Stephen Walker providing voiceover narration. With his deep, somewhat nasal baritone and British accent, it’s hard to escape the feeling that we’re watching a science documentary. It might seem like a minor point, but Walker’s voiceover narration, more often redundant than not, ends up being an unnecessary distraction from what turns out to be a superlative documentary, one that explores old age, mortality, friendship, and the need for creative expression (and recognition) within the seemingly simple context of the chorus’ preparation for their one-night only performance in Northampton to kick off their latest tour.
And while [email protected] might feel overlong, in part to several music videos directed by Walker starring members of the chorus, the extra running time is used to explore the lives of the chorus members in greater detail, up to and including their thoughts on mortality. As the long-time director of the chorus, Cilman has experienced the loss of many chorus members, some of whom had transcended mere acquaintances to become friends. But Cilman and the other chorus members seem to understand that recognizing their own, impending mortality and the mortality of their friends and fellow chorus members isn’t so much an excuse to grieve for what they’ve lost or will lose, but a chance to celebrate everything they’ve accomplished through the [email protected] chorus.
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
by Mel Valentin on Apr 18, 2008