The premise of "Young@Heart" sounds much too cute to tolerate. A documentary about a choir of old-timers bashing out rock songs like the Ramones' "I Wanna Be Sedated" and Radiohead's "Fake Plastic Trees"? Good for a quick ironic horselaugh on YouTube, maybe, and then it's time to move on.
The ragged triumph of Stephen Walker's film is that it persuades us to stick around as the proceedings deepen into profundity. To sing the Clash's "Should I Stay or Should I Go" when you're in your 90s changes the very DNA of the song -- you're no longer addressing a girlfriend but God. Coldplay's "Fix You" becomes a stark plea when accompanied by the rhythmic puff of an oxygen pump.
Yet "Young@Heart" is a delight, too a paean to harnessing punk's energy to rage and dance against the dying of the light. Walker trains his camera on the Young@Heart Chorus of Northampton, Mass., an organization started by choir director Bob Cilman in 1982 as a way to give the members of an elderly housing project something to do. Somewhere along the way the puckish Cilman started introducing rock classics to the mix. "After 'Do Wah Diddy Diddy,' things weren't the same," he deadpans.
The movie follows the preparations for a 2006-07 tour of New England, the West Coast and Ireland. (The choir has already been to the rest of Europe and Australia.) Cilman introduces the new material: Sonic Youth's "Schizophrenia," the Talking Heads' "Life During Wartime," Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," and, for 84-year-old Dora Morrow and 76-year-old Stan Goldman, a duet on James Brown's "I Got You (I Feel Good)." The choir's expressions as they listen to "Schizophrenia" for the first time say it all: shock, confusion and a lust for challenge.
Cilman has his hands full, especially with "I Feel Good": Morrow has the rhythm but can't remember the lyrics, and Goldman remembers the lyrics but can't get the rhythm. There are pockets of rebellion, as in high school. The movie fans out into the choir members' lives with friendly curiosity, nosing in as the men and women struggle and gripe and tease one another. The difficulties of aging -- let alone aging with grace -- are never glossed. The humor is scraped clean of self-pity.
"Young@Heart" is sloppily made at times and it comes close to wearing out its welcome, but you can't blame Walker for not wanting to let his subjects go. And as the movie progresses, a viewer begins to understand why: These people are literally singing for their lives.
A great deal of suspense is wrung out of whether one choir member will make it out of the hospital in time for a performance, and it's giving little away to say that some of the singers don't make it to the end credits. Suddenly the trite lyrics of "Fix You" ache with portent: "When you try your best, but you don't succeed/ When you get what you want, but not what you need/ When you feel so tired, but you can't sleep/ Stuck in reverse."
Against every mournful moment in the film is a scornful laugh; the scenes with Eileen Hall, at 91 the oldest member of the choir but in spirit one of the youngest, burn with energy. Late in the film, after the choir has heard some tragic news, they perform Bruce Springsteen's "Dancing in the Dark" in the yard of a minimum-security prison. The scene boomerangs beyond metaphor and back into real life; singers and convicts alike seem to access what's happening at every level. In "Young@Heart," the prison is old age, and every song is a jailbreak.