Watch The Tunes: Young@Heart

On March 10th 2017 » By Chris Lay

Young@Heart

There is an absurdly vast selection of music movies and documentaries available on Netflix, Hulu, HBO Go, and on and on and on. But it’s hard to tell which ones are actually worth your 100 minutes. Watch the Tunes will help you pick what music doc is worth your time every weekend. This week’s edition covers Young@Heart, which is currently streaming on Netflix.

Cover groups are a dicey thing. The cynical take is that most of the time they’re a crass cash grab by less talented musicians churning out pale facsimiles of Top 40 staples, but, on the other hand, sometimes you get something truly sublime that adds new dimensions to the original work. Think less Mini Kiss and Lez Zeppelin and more Kurt Cobain’s take on “Man Who Sold The World” or Johnny Cash’s American Recordings album series and you’re headed in the right direction. I’m as much a fan of novelty as the next guy, but its plasticy feeling is a feature not a flaw. While the prospect of octogenarians attacking pop hits might seem like a cheesy hook, Young@Heart ends up presenting not only an unexpectedly unique approach to cover songs, but also might change how you contemplate the later years of life in general.

It’s worth tossing it out there that the Young@Heart Chorus, which was founded all the way back in 1982, are not exactly the first group of singers taking an extreme approach to appropriating pop standards. In the late ‘70s, the Langley Schools Music Project notably recorded Canadian elementary school children singing songs by the likes of David Bowie and the Beach Boys, and it had a similar, if opposite, effect as its elder compatriots. While both of these projects might seem like paths of least resistance when it comes to finding new ways to appreciate music you already have a relationship with, somehow there’s still nothing at all cheap in the experience. On one end of the spectrum you get an undeniable element of innocence that comes through, while on the other you get the weight of wisdom that comes from a life that’s been lived.

It’s worth tossing it out there that the Young@Heart Chorus, which was founded all the way back in 1982, are not exactly the first group of singers taking an extreme approach to appropriating pop standards. In the late ‘70s, the Langley Schools Music Project notably recorded Canadian elementary school children singing songs by the likes of David Bowie and the Beach Boys, and it had a similar, if opposite, effect as its elder compatriots. While both of these projects might seem like paths of least resistance when it comes to finding new ways to appreciate music you already have a relationship with, somehow there’s still nothing at all cheap in the experience. On one end of the spectrum you get an undeniable element of innocence that comes through, while on the other you get the weight of wisdom that comes from a life that’s been lived.

You might think that Coldplay’s song “Fix You” was sappy as hell coming from Chris Martin, but listening to it as sung in the fragile voice of a man who’s pushing 90, it’s devastating. Originally written to help Gwyneth Paltrow through the grief of her father’s passing, the song now sounds much more internalized, the singer processing regrets and comforting other family members and themselves through their own eventual mortality. “When the tears come streaming down your face / When you lose something you can’t replace / When you love someone but it goes to waste / Could it be worse?” No, I am NOT crying! There’s just… some… DUST… in my eye!

You can’t have it all be heartbreakers like that one though, so the repertoire is rounded out by wild takes on a motley crew of unexpected baby boom bangers including James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good),” Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark,” and Allen Toussaint’s “Yes We Can Can,” the latter of which the singers really struggle with getting right. How can you not love a bunch of old folks singing David Bowie’ “Golden Years”? Bowie might’ve written it for Elvis, but it was clearly meant for men and women that are well into their golden years (whop whop whop).

As you’d expect, death is present in every frame of this film, but the way it’s experienced and dealt with is actually refreshing, if that’s possible. This is a group of men and women who, at their age, are likely to have more friends underground than above, so while there are obviously emotional responses to the deaths of their fellow chorus members, it’s an experience that has lost its ability to shock them into any sort of stagnation. When they find out just before a show that one of their members has passed away, they allow themselves a bit of time for it to sink in, and then get back to work on the show at hand. Cancelling a performance because someone has died, in fact, wouldn’t just be unheard of, but it would be an insult to that member’s wishes. One woman says “If I collapse on stage just drag me off and go on with the show.”

For many of the singers, being in the group is what gets them out of bed in the morning. When you hear that one of the members has only missed a handful of shows despite going through no less than six chemotherapy sessions over the course of his tenure, you get a real bittersweet sense of how important this organization is to their lives. It’s difficult to not watch this and ponder where you’re going to be when you’re as old as these folks are and if you’ll be as happy and active and open to new things. I mean, we’re talking about men and women whose musical tastes range from classical to opera and they’re able to open their minds wide enough to get a bearing on Sonic Youth’s “Schizophrenia,” which is impressive at any age!

Old people are wonderful, and it sucks that some of the outspoken racist ones have given a bad name to the truly outstanding elders out there who are still overflowing with an unjaded approach to life. It’s doubly great that Young@Heart manages to do right by these old timers, but also manages to flip so many songs on their heads while it offers a shockingly bright look at mortality.

Subscribe to our On Rotation playlist

Chris Lay

Chris Lay

Chris Lay is a freelance writer, archivist, and record store clerk living in Madison, WI. The very first CD he bought for himself was the Dumb & Dumber soundtrack when he was twelve and things only got better from there.

Latest from The Magazine