The documentary film Young@Heart is about a group of two dozen senior citizens from Northampton, Massachusetts. They travel the globe performing covers of cutting-edge contemporary songs.
The film was recently released on DVD, and Stephen Walker, who was its director, recently chatted with NBC about the project.
NBC: How did you get involved with Young@Heart?
Stephen Walker: My wife had tickets to a Young@Heart concert. I told her: ‘That sounds awful.’ I had little interest in the concert. I didn’t know what to expect. I thought it was a gimmick or it might be karaoke.
NBC: What turned you around?
SW: It was a packed house at the Lyric Theater, which seats about a thousand people. All ages were there, from kids to 80-year-olds to baby boomers. I was looking at music I knew in a whole different way. I came out of the show revved up.
NBC: What made you think that the group would be a good subject for a documentary?
SW: I thought that it offered a look at old age through the prism of music.
NBC: What was the biggest obstacle in making the film?
SW: Actually, nine other companies had approached Bob Cilman, the Choral Director of the group about filming them. There had already been some projects featuring Young@Heart, including a segment on 20/20 and a short Belgian film that really didn’t focus on the music. I had to convince him to give me access to the group.
NBC: How did you raise money to shoot the film?
SW: I received funding from Channel 4 in England.
NBC: How did you decide the focus of the film?
SW: It was important to focus on four or five members, but not lose focus of the entire group.
NBC: What was your major criterion in selecting the members of Young@Heart to focus on?
SW: They had to be wildly distinctive.
NBC: Were you certain that you had chosen the right members to focus on?
SW: Yes. They were so strong. It became clear when we met them.
NBC: Bob Cilman, the Choral Director of Young@Heart, emerges as an interesting character in the film. What was he like?
SW: He’s tough, but he’s a great guy. He knows they have to make great music. He’s got to be tough because he’s an artist, not a social worker.
NBC: What was the shooting schedule like?
SW: Each morning, we had an hour meeting before shooting started. We had to decide which of the twenty songs being rehearsed that day we would film, who was being interviewed, and the sequence of the shots.
NBC: What aspects did you encounter in editing the footage?
SW: If you decontextualize the film, you’ll see it’s quite careful in the way it’s edited. If you take some of the characters, you don’t really spend very much time with them at all.
NBC: The tone of the film marries levity with an examination of some sobering topics. In the course of making the film, several chorus members died. How did you approach the tone?
SW: It was very conscious all the way through. I always feel that pathos is pathetic in a film if there is no humor in it and I feel humor is not funny if there is no pathos. If we evaded the big issues, it would have been tedious and patronizing. When we edited the film, it was like walking a tightrope between humor and poignancy. It’s an incredibly dangerous tightrope to walk, because you can so easily fall off it. Then, it’s a sick joke and doesn’t work at all.
NBC: Did you have any new revelations as a result of making Young@Heart?
SW: I had no idea that people of this age could live like this. People take away an inspirational message, though, that getting old is not hopeless and these people can offer so much to Society. Their energy level is extraordinary and they’re always in search of new challenges.