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Forget the rocking chairs, Young@Heart seniors are rocking out

Young@Heart chorus members range in age from 72 to 88. Some have previous performing experience, others have none. The chorus is backed by a five-member band, the youngest member born in 1971.

TIMOTHY WHITE | Special to the Times

Young@Heart chorus members range in age from 72 to 88. Some have previous performing experience, others have none. The chorus is backed by a five-member band, the youngest member born in 1971.

The song begins with the hiss of an oxygen pump, out of rhythm with a melancholy piano. The pump is connected by tubes to the singer's nostrils as he sits, center stage, before a rapt audience.

Fred Knittle, now 83, is singing goodbye to a dear friend.

Knittle may have socks older than the ballad, Fix You by the rock band Coldplay. It was supposed to be a duet. Knittle's partner Bob Salvini died a few days before this 2006 show.

For the next three minutes, Knittle makes each lyric count for something more than the young British musicians had intended:

"Lights will guide you home. And ignite your bones. And I will try to fix you."

Knittle's performance is the emotional highlight of Stephen Walker's documentary Young@Heart, named for a chorus of Massachusetts senior citizens who refuse to sing their age.

Their song list is unusual, covering such bands as Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, the Bee Gees and the Ramones.

Walker's movie, which opens locally May 9, shows 24 people going out on their own terms with tunes they make their own.

Some renditions are intentionally funny, for the fact that older adults are singing I Wanna Be Sedated, Staying Alive and Road to Nowhere. Others like Fix You carry the weight and wisdom of long, rich lives in their final acts.

"This is our life now," said Jean Florio, 86, who still performs with Young@Heart after 18 years and five heart attacks. "Singing these songs is very inspiring and keeps you going. This is reality, and you just face it."

Young@Heart was formed in 1982 by Bob Cilman, executive director of the Northampton (Mass.) Arts Council. In the beginning, it was a chance for retirees to don costumes and perform songs they had known for decades: Ghost Riders in the Sky, Diamonds Are a Girl's Best Friend and the like. A few years later, Cilman wondered what plugging newer, upbeat songs into such aged enthusiasm would produce.

Since that inspired choice, Young@Heart has performed dozens of shows around the world in sold-out theaters.

"But here in the United States, even in our hometown, some people don't even know about us," Florio said by telephone last week.

That oversight is suddenly changing as Walker's movie reaches theaters. In the past few weeks, the chorus has performed with Ellen DeGeneres on her TV show, tickled Jay Leno on his and became a popular video search on YouTube, especially Knittle's version of Fix You.

"I was pleased to do that because of Bob and Joe (Benoit), who both died within a week of the show (in the movie)," Knittle told me. "I'm not sure I even understood (the lyrics) the first time I read them. But I had a feeling that it would turn out to be something special.

"That last rehearsal was just awful for Bob. When he walked out to the car that day I thought, 'He's not going to make it.' And he didn't come back. I was just paying back to Bob what he had given to the chorus all those years."

Young@Heart is more than music; it is an opportunity for these seniors to stay sharp by memorizing lyrics, and to socialize rather than remain shut in. Cilman adds another benefit:

"What they mostly get out of it is being focused on a really interesting art project," Cilman said by phone. "What they get out of it is what anybody gets out of making art — the satisfaction of going through this incredible struggle and winding up on the other side feeling incredibly proud of what you've done."

Cilman sees the potential for the movie Young@Heart to inspire similar benefits in any community.

"The only thing I can say to that is: Go ahead and do it," Cilman said. "Young@Heart isn't looking to franchise. But it's a great idea if people are inspired to do something similar in their communities. As long as people go into it with the right attitude, there's an opportunity to create something very cool."

Steve Persall can be reached at persall@sptimes.com or (727) 893-8365. Read his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/movies.

Forget the rocking chairs, Young@Heart seniors are rocking out 04/28/08 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 29, 2008 8:36pm]
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