On a recent afternoon in the college town of Northampton, Mass., a group of seniors aged 70-90 gathered to practice singing. But instead of church hymns or World War II-era classics, Jimi Hendrix drifted from the rafters, with a live rock band as accompaniment.
Yes, the song was "Purple Haze" and, yes, the people singing it were pretty old … and pretty good.
The members of the Young at Heart chorus might be the unlikeliest rockers around, in that every member of the group is at least 70. Widows and widowers, grandmothers and grandfathers. Men and women who have seen a lot of life, but also a lot of loss.
When asked how big a part the Young at Heart chorus is in her life, Jean summed up the group's importance to its elderly members. "It's about it," she says. "I've lost my husband."
A Baby Boomer's Baby
Young at Heart is the brainchild of choir director Bob Cilman, a 50-something active in the Northampton arts scene, whose musical training consists of forming a band with his friends as a 13-year-old and playing the Bar Mitzvah circuit in his hometown of Rochester, N.Y.
But 26 years ago, while working with a group of seniors, Cilman and his colleagues realized they might be onto something special.
"The very first person who tried it was this Polish woman who did the most tortured version of 'Let It Be' by the Beatles," he said. "I kind of loved it because it was so … you couldn't recognize the song in what she was doing, but it was so beautiful that she felt something so deeply when she was singing it."
Cilman has never looked back, developing the group into a sought-after act that is now something of an international sensation. They have toured all over the world and are now the subject of a remarkable documentary opening April 8, also called "Young at Heart."
The chorus members' ages makes them all the more dedicated to the hard work of learning songs they would likely never listen to at home, Cilman says. "It's an easy group to work with on some level because they're very available," he says. "They're not thinking about where they're going to be able to go next with this other than what they're doing; this is where they want to be."
Yet there is a risk that some will view the Young at Heart chorus as a sideshow circus act, simply a joke that allows audiences to laugh at, instead of with, the novelty of seniors trying to sing punk music. Cilman acknowledges the risk, but says no one who sees the chorus perform could walk away with anything but respect for their achievements.
"There's a real line with that," Cilman says. "You have to be really careful about it because I think a lot of people come into it thinking about that and it sounds very gimmicky, especially when you hear old people doing rock and roll. You think, 'Oy, what's that gonna be?' But I don't think that's what you walk away with at the end … I'm hoping that people realize these people are really taking songs that they didn't know very well and interpreting them in ways that are special and unique."
A Bittersweet Experience
The film follows the chorus for several weeks as the group gets ready for a show, capturing the sheer joy of singing as well as the singular sadness of aging. Cilman says he has lost 70 performers over the years.
"You don't get people for as long," Cilman said. "You get really fond of people and then they get sick or die. There's the fact you can't have these people forever."
Two members passed away during the filming of the documentary. Cilman remembers one such member, a beloved man named Joe Benoit who died of cancer, as an example of the passion and devotion of Young at Heart's members.
"That guy was really sick for a long time and he just ignored every doctor's advice to be part of this thing, and to sing and go on tour," Cilman said. "He was in London for thirteen shows in two weeks, it was amazing. And that was four or five months before he died."
Said one member of the group: "You have to expect it. You don't feel bad about it. Face facts. Get real."
But their resilience doesn't mean the feelings aren't deep. The group gives an unparalleled poignancy to the old theater phrase "the show must go on."
In the film, for example, longtime member Bob Salvini is enlisted to sing a duet of Coldplay's "Fix You," but passed away just weeks before the show. It left 82 year-old Fred Knittle, who is on an oxygen tank, to sing it on his own. What resulted was a truly moving rendition of the song, whose lyrics are about helping someone to get over grief, in which Knittle's oxygen tank acted almost like an additional musical instrument.
"I love that he has that oxygen machine as a rhythm box," Cilman said. "I think it's one of the most incredible moments. You know it's not anything we really planned, but if you listen to it in the movie, it's just haunting."
The video of Knittle performing "Fix You" has received more than 600,000 hits on YouTube.
'I Dig This'
"Young at Heart" tackles issues of loss and the pervading sadness of old age, but the film is also very much about life. Cilman says his favorite scene is at a prison, when the chorus goes to entertain the inmates.
"Here's people who are stuck in this place," Cilman said. "Some of them won't get out till they're old and they probably figure their life is completely over. And the idea of these people walking in and saying you know what, till the day you die there's something that can be interesting in your life. And I think that's what happened there."
Until the day you die there's something that can be interesting in your life; that is what Young at Heart is about. And that is why everyone from jailbirds to journalists can't help but smile when they watch.
"Hopefully, you're smiling because you're enjoying it and it's good," one member said. "The worst smile is that ''Isn't that cute?' sort of smile, like, 'Isn't it sweet that these people are doing this?' thing. We're not interested in that at all. We're interested in people coming there and saying 'Wow, this is good. I dig this.'"
The group relishes the element of surprise in its act. "They don't expect us to sing rock in the first place," said Lenny Fontaine, 87, who sings the lead on "Purple Haze." In the second place, they say 'Well those are people who are not sitting down on their haunches and not being a sofa person."
There seems to be no danger of anyone in the Young at Heart chorus becoming a "sofa person" anytime soon.