The oldest rock 'n' roller in movies these days isn't a Rolling Stone. Mick Jagger at 64 is a whippersnapper compared to anyone singing with the Young@Heart chorus.
The "baby" of this inspiring bunch of Massachusetts seniors is 72. The oldest is pushing 90. Stephen Walker's documentary Young@Heart, opening May 9 in bay area theaters, shows them refusing to act — or sing — their ages.
From its opening close-up of a withered, whiskered woman belting out the Clash's Should I Stay or Should I Go?, Young@Heart is a valentine to the potential of aging and the endurance of rock, R&B and pop music. You'll never listen to James Brown's I Feel Good or the Bee Gees' Staying Alive the same way again.
Filmed in 2006, the film chronicles six weeks of preparation for a concert that two chorus members won't live to perform. The show must go on and it does, highlighted by 84-year-old Fred Knittle's tribute to the departed, a somber rendition of Coldplay's Fix You.
Most of the concert is upbeat, summed up in rhythm and spirit by the Pointer Sisters hit, Yes We Can Can.
If it's too loud, you're probably not old enough.
The mastermind of this remarkable ensemble is Bob Cilman, 55, who started the chorus in 1982 with residents of an assisted living home in Northampton, Mass. The play list originally focused upon songs from their long-ago youth, with a few classic rock tunes for variety. The priority began reversing in 1984, with one of those spontaneous inspirations common to rock 'n' roll.
"I had this Polish woman singing Let It Be, kind of a Polish-English version," Cilman said during a telephone interview. "For some listeners it may have seemed like a kind of tortured version.
"For others, myself included, it was a deeply emotional thing this person was doing with this song. It was barely recognizable but she was taking it to a place that was really interesting."
Making it their own
Cilman took the experiment farther, adding contemporary songs that most members hadn't heard, by bands they were never interested in hearing: Uncle John's Band by the Grateful Dead and Rivers of Babylon from the reggae-fueled soundtrack of The Harder They Come.
"When Bob first started bringing around these songs we all complained: 'Ah, we don't want to do that. It's too much like druggies. That's too rock,' " Knittle said in a phone interview. "But we did them and we did them our way and they became our songs."
Known by Young@Heart members as a taskmaster, Cilman insisted that would happen.
"You do not make any suggestions to Bob," said singer Jean Florio, 86. "That's a no-no. You just sing them like he wants it to be done. You may think you can't do it but you certainly can by the time the show comes around.
"He's strict but he has mellowed over the years. He's still young."
What Cilman also won't allow is for Young@Heart to be regarded as a novelty act. Certainly there is humor found in a Young@Heart music video set in a hospital with seniors singing the Ramones' I Wanna Be Sedated. There is also unimpeachable wisdom in their versions of Bob Dylan's Forever Young and Fix You bringing audiences — even prison inmates in the film — to joyous tears.
"It's more than a kick," Cilman said. "People really get moved by it. Part of it is interesting because they're old people and you don't expect them to be doing this. But the songs get reinvented to a certain degree.
"These people really focus on the lyrics. My musical upbringing was to listen to the rhythm, melody and energy of rock 'n' roll. I was lead singer in rock bands and I sometimes hardly knew the words. I just mumbled and it was fine. For them, lyrics are everything."
Walker's movie was released more than a year ago in Europe, where Young@Heart has performed in royal palaces and sold-out theaters for more than a decade. One member, Lenny Fontaine, 88, has a fan club in England, although nobody knows why; perhaps for the snazzy convertible he drives in the movie.
Fame in the United States hasn't arrived until now with the movie's release in major markets. Ellen DeGeneres and Jay Leno were recently captivated by the group, and a Los Angeles concert two weeks ago thrilled 1,900 people. The Web site for their hometown band Sonic Youth spotlighted Young@Heart's cover of Schizophrenia, and David Byrne invited them to perform One Fine Day onstage in New York.
Cilman believes they're handling stateside celebrity well.
"I think they're finding it's a mixed bag," he said. "They love performing, they love getting in front of an audience. The more this leads to that, the happier they're going to be.
"I don't think they're going to get big heads over this thing. We're not working with young rock stars looking for a break. We're working with people who know what gets them there."
Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.