last night I saw a documentary about an incredible group of singers: young @ heart. I was in the library with my kids, and my two-year-old pulled the DVD off a library shelf and handed it to me saying “der you go!” Seemed like a sign, so I took it out and watched it. I laughed and cried. I was inspired and challenged.
If you’re not familiar with the doc, it’s about a chorus of seniors in Massechussetts that sings surprising repertoire. Surprising in the choices (80-yr-olds singing Sonic Youth? The Ramones? David Bowie?) and surprising in how poignant and appropriate and fresh the songs become through their performance and interpretation. Through their very voices.
My favourite song (although it was darn hard to choose) was “Road to Nowhere” by the Talking Heads. I’d like to embed the video for you, but can’t–maybe due to copyright?–so please. Take a sec, and click on the link and watch it now, then close the window and come back to me:
Wasn’t that AWESOME? I don’t know about you but there was so much that I missed in the words of the original that were striking here…”We know what we’re knowing but we don’t know what we’ve seen” and “we’re not little children and we know what we want”. And dig the arrangement–the solo voice and chorus completing each other’s sentences and thoughts. Individual and collective, continuous and disjointed. And what a brilliant mix of instruments–piano, accordian, violin, drums. As Steven Holden of the New York Times wrote about Young@Heart’s rendition of Stayin’ Alive, their perspective infuses urgency into the music and lyrics:
Sung by people approaching the end of their lives, the song is no longer about strutting through the urban jungle with your elbows out; it is a blunt survival anthem. These singers, most of them well- rehearsed amateurs, refuse to go gently into that good night. For them music is oxygen.
I was inspired on several levels. First on the front that I imagine many people felt…a “wow! if they can do it at THEIR age, I can do anything I want! It’s never too late!” And this is true, I feel hopeful that my getting older doesn’t necessarily mean growing useless, as our society seems to assume about ageing. But the movie’s focus on seniors, whose stories are rarely considered by people related to them, let alone features of movies, makes this an exceptional topic. Turns out we never stop wanting to belong, to make contributions, to be creative, and to have our art and consequently ourselves, taken seriously. My grandma and grandpa were in a residential home for the last few years of their lives. It was like a purgatory. A waiting station till death. How much different would lives be if as we grew older, we knew we could continue to be valued, contributing members to social and musical scenes?
There’s an urgency to the singing–death is near for a chorus whose average age is 80. Several members say that if something “happens” to them, they’d want the chorus to keep going. One lady says, “if i collapse onstage, just drag me off and keep singing.” They have a passionate commitment to their music and their community like I’ve never seen. There’s a stripped-down, raw quality to Young@Heart’s singing, and willingness or perhaps urgency to be unrefined that cuts through social mores. A leaning on each other that’s about survival as much as it’s about friendship.
Something else occured to me as I watched the singers. Singing is less about finding a perfect voice and more about finding the right container for the voice, no matter how unusual the container or the voice. Or maybe unusual is a prerequisite. Some of the chorus members were ‘good singers’ in the ways that we learn to recognize ‘good singing’–full, pleasant voices singing on pitch, words and melodies fully remembered. But many weren’t ‘good singers’, and those were the voices, by far, that were the most satisfying. Huge and lusty and frayed. Filled with colours of shouting, crying, wavering, frailty, strength. Voices bubbling over with human experience. Voices that forgot words and rhythms. All so satisfying, and not in a “oh aren’t they cute?” kind of way. In a really challenging and satisfying way that spoke to the experience of being human. So it struck me that artistic excellence is not so much about perfecting our voices to shoehorn ourselves into particular established forms and expectations. It’s about finding the container (both in repertoire and in presentation) to express our full humanness. It’s at once familiar and strange. Disruptive and immensely satisfying.
I guess I should let my 2-yr-old pick my movies for me more often.