Young@Heart and Girls Rock! 

Young@Heart: Three and a half stars (PG)
Girls Rock!: Three stars (PG)

This week, two documentaries about singing, one featuring old folks and one featuring kids, one playing on the Northside and the other on the South. Pretty yin-yangy, eh? The one on the North is Young@Heart, fresh from the Indianapolis International Film Festival and opening at Landmark’s Keystone Art Cinema. The one on the South is Girls Rock!, playing at Key Cinemas. Before we proceed, I’d like a quick show of hands: How many of you agree that the local movie scene would be less confusing if Landmark dropped the “Keystone” from their name so that people would stop getting the two art houses mixed up?

The enjoyable Young@Heart deals with the singing group of the same name, notable because the vocalists are elderly people performing material one wouldn’t expect people in their 70s, 80s and 90s to do, songs by James Brown, The Ramones, Talking Heads, Sonic Youth, Radiohead and the like — the hook is that group leader and conductor Bob Cilman, a boomer in his early 50s, selects numbers with lyrics that will have a different impact coming from the lips of seniors.

Think about “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash, “I Wanna Be Sedated” by The Ramones or “I Feel Good” by James Brown and imagine an elderly person singing them. The results are sometimes funny, often poignant and occasionally disquieting — the selection of “Road to Nowhere” by Talking Heads seems harsh at first, but some of the words in the verses temper the chorus to a degree. Add in a cheesy music video (there are several in the film) and the song becomes positively jaunty. 

Stephen Walker’s direction is less than inspired — the film plods at points — but the profiles of various chorus members allow us to feel involved with the group on more than just a conceptual level. There are a lot of interesting people here and some of the singers are quite good. I particularly enjoyed Fred Knittle, an ex-Young@Hearter with a quick wit and a powerful voice who returns to perform a special number. 

I wish Young@Heart had included more interaction between the chorus and leader/conductor Cilman. We see that the singers are sometimes uncomfortable with their material, most notably the Sonic Youth song “Schizophrenia.” Surely Cilman discusses his song choices with the chorus, explaining why he believes them to be appropriate for the group. We never see that, though, which is disturbing, because it would be sad if the singers don’t really understand the songs they are supposedly reinterpreting.

Girls Rock! is as much about empowerment as it is about music. Set at a week-long rock ’n’ roll camp for girls, it follows the stories of four of the young women as they prepare for the end-of-camp concert in front of an audience of 700. Laura is a charming, well-spoken kid into death metal; Misty is recovering from a life of drugs, gangs and homelessness; Palace is an 8-year-old with the face of a doll and the sneer of Billy Idol; and young Amelia is working on a 14-song cycle about her dog. The stories are interesting and the camp’s efforts to help the girls realize that they don’t have to settle for being appearance-obsessed second-class citizens are stirring. This is a noisy flick — remember, the children only have a week to create a performance — but the substance outweighs the shrieks. Parents should consider taking their kids to see Girls Rock! In addition to being fun, it has important things to say to them and you. 

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