Knight at the Movies Archives
A winning documentary about the power of music and jazz superstar Noah Jones makes her acting debut
The soothing, all encompassing power of music and song – its ability to unify, offer pleasure, fulfill the artistic bent, communicate,
and much more – is vividly demonstrated in the documentary Young@Heart. The film follows the preparations for a 2006
performance by the 24 members of the Young at Heart choir headquartered in Northampton, Massachusetts. The gimmick of the
movie is that the chorus is made up of members whose average age is 80 yet perform songs by Sonic Youth, the Clash, the
Ramones, and Coldplay. It sounds about as dubious a premise as the old lady singing “Rapper’s Delight” in Adam Sandler’s The
Wedding Singer. But here the septuagenarians aren’t used to score cheap laughs and the result is alternately delightful, inspiring,
The movie, by British documentarian Stephen Walker starts on a high note. 92 year-old chorus member Eileen is followed by the
cameras mid-performance as she slowly but confidently walks downstage to the microphone and queries the audience “Should I Stay
Or Should I Go?” in a brisk English accent. It’s immediately apparent as Eileen and the rest of the chorus members continue
performing the Clash standard that they are having a great time and so is their audience. We then follow the chorus, which was
started in 1982 by Bob Cilman, the choir’s director, as they prepare for their upcoming concert. We begin to meet members of the
chorus as Fred starts assigning solos and rehearsals begin on an adventurous program. In addition to James Brown’s “I Feel Good,”
Fred has slated “Schizophrenic” by Sonic Youth, “Yes We Can Can” by the Pointer Sisters, and “Fix You” by Coldplay among others.
But the chorus members fearlessly dive in, literally rarin’ to go. As rehearsals progress we are given background on several of the
members and hear and see how much the choir has enriched their lives. Oddly, we find out nothing about Cilman’s background or
where his passion for pairing up old folks with rock and punk songs stems from (an explanation the film could have used). We also
witness the poignant return of Bob and Fred, who will duet on “Fix You.” Both have been away from the chorus due to illness and
their introduction comes just as the charm of the film is fading. Fred, especially, is a shot of tart energy the movie needs after the
material has been stretched out with music videos (especially of the chorus performing “I Wanna Be Sedated” set in a nursing
home). Fred, who sings a haunting bit of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” without prompting has lots of personality, plenty of jokes and
stories and a pleasing, no nonsense manner that he brings to his singing.
You’re not sure if either Bob or Fred (or several others for that matter) will make it through to the concert and the movie becomes a
genuine cliffhanger so that by the time we reach the pivotal moment (after a wonderful sequence with the choir entertaining at a
prison), the performance of “Fix You” is tremendously moving. The overall effect of the old folks doing the “now” tunes is somewhat
like that of the plaintive, unadorned beauty of the little grade school girl singing the Eagles’ “Desperado” as part of the Langley
Schools Music Project (the offbeat CD of the found recordings made in the mid-seventies of a group of Canadian grade school kids
singing then current songs by the Beach Boys, the Carpenters, and David Bowie).
At a certain point, no matter the musical genre, songs are there to be stripped down to their basics ready for both singer and
audience to intuitively tap into their universality. It’s supremely touching, life affirming, and oddly comforting that both a record by
grade school kids and the performances in Young@Heart by the elderly choir – two age groups that are not supposed “to get” or like
this music – would find a way to not only perform it, but to transform it for themselves and their audiences in the process.
Jazz singer Norah Jones makes her acting debut in Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai’s American debut My Blueberry Nights, a
road movie that wends its way from New York to Memphis and then on to the west coast. The story follows Jones as
Elizabeth/Beth/Lizzie, a waitress who encounters Jeremy (Jude Law) at his bakery in Manhattan just after being jilted. For weeks,
Elizabeth stops by the bakery to sample Jeremy’s blueberry pie and other desserts in an attempt to mend her broken heart as the
train roars overhead (a Kar Wai staple). But one night, just like that, she takes off and Jeremy who has fallen under her languorous
spell only has the intermittent postcards that track her travels to dream upon.
Elizabeth is surrounded by “characters” as she meanders along which is good because she’s nothing more than a bland cipher at the
periphery of the action. The movie – which is filmed with a lot of slow motion montages and Kar Wai’s signature striking, muted
color – is only momentarily galvanized by the presence of the outsized characters Elizabeth encounters – David Strathairn as a
lovelorn cop, Rachel Weisz as a hot tamale in Memphis, and Natalie Portman as a feisty gambler. Portman gets a southern accent,
blonde highlights, lots of jangly jewelry, and a hot sports car to zoom around in – but thank goodness for this as both she and Weisz
give the movie a much needed pulse.
A much longer version was screened at Cannes that featured many more of those post card voiceovers by Jones (thankfully trimmed
here) but though that’s certainly to the good, My Blueberry Nights at any length doesn’t begin to answer the question why Jones, who
seems nice in a bland, girl next door way, would ever be tapped to star in a movie. Her scenes with Law, who brings his easy
authority to his role, point out Jones’ not very good line readings and whatever good will her amateurish acting skills have built up
are immediately obliterated when she is heard singing on the soundtrack a new song she wrote for the movie, “The Story.” Ironically
it is Jones’ singing of this new song, with its unabashed sensuality that really underlines the flatness of her screen presence and
made me realize another irony: I found her movie debut as bland as I used to find her singing. Huh.
From the Department of Shameless Self-Promotion:
For almost four years now I’ve been writing film reviews and doing interviews for Windy City Times from a queer perspective and for
the last year I’ve also been working on a TV pilot that incorporates those two things – and more. The project is called Movie
Queens and my co-host is performer-playwright and fellow film fanatic David Kodeski. In addition to his many theatrical credits,
David worked as a producer for almost ten years for “At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper.” I’m happy to announce that the Web site
for “Movie Queens” is now online with about 20 minutes of content (with more to come) – including a mini version of our interview
with queer icon Bruce Vilanch. Stop on by Movie Queen Manor and say hello.
Music and Meandering:
Young@Heart-My Blueberry Nights
Expanded Edition of 4-16-08 Windy City Times Knight at the Movies Column
By Richard Knight, Jr.