Senior singers stayin’ alive

Dora Morrow and Jack Schnepp are pleased with the way their chorus is portrayed in the new movie “Young@Heart”

“It’s great! Nice,” says the 85-year-old Morrow, about the documentary, which opens Friday.

“It’s the unvarnished truth,” adds Schnepp, 78, who, with Morrow, was recently in San Francisco to promote the film, which depicts the weeks in the life of singers in a Massachusetts seniors choir as they prepare for a big hometown concert.

The group, also called Young@Heart, isn’t any old troupe. Under the helm of no-nonsense director Bob Cilman, the vocalists, who have toured the world, are known for performing material not typically associated with seniors. Their repertoire features tunes by Coldplay, Sonic Youth, The Ramones and Talking Heads — most unknown to the singers until they’re introduced by Cilman.

The movie shows Morrow working hard to nail her solo on James Brown’s “I Got You (I Feel Good).”

“I knew it, but not the way Bob wanted it,” says Morrow.

The film makes viewers hear familiar songs in a new way. Not only does the singers’ age cast the lyrics in a different light, the clarity of the performers’ delivery proves quite effective. A common response upon first hearing the group, Schnepp says, is the comment, “I knew the song, but itwas the first time I ever understood it.”

“I was shocked — in an interested way,” says director Stephen Walker of his initial reaction to the group, which he saw in concert at a theater near his home in London, where he lives with his wife Sally George, who produced “Young@Heart”.

The pair was in the market for a new film project when George casually bought tickets to the choir’s show.

Witnessing the audience scream “stay!” as 90-something Eileen Hall sang “Should I Stay or Should I Go,” Walker says he was struck by the fact that Hall was singing about life and death.

“The lyrics were totally refreshing,” he says, and the performance prompted the couple to seriously consider the chorus as a film topic. “A musical about old age? Who’s ever done that before?” Walker asks.

Yet the movie deal didn’t go through for a while; many other producers also had contacted Cilman about making a film about the group.

Cilman, who comes off as a bit of a taskmaster, likes the way the film turned out, although he wishes the musicians were better featured and says it comes close to being “too sweet.”

“We’re not providing a social service here; it’s not a feel-good thing,” says Cilman, who spends 20 percent of his work life as head of the chorus, and 80 percent directing the Northampton Arts Council, a local group that provides arts funding.

As for the choir’s eclectic set list — which includes “Yes We Can Can,” “Stayin’ Alive” and “Road to Nowhere,” Cilman says, “Some of the songs pick us, some are suggested by the band.”

But he adds, “We’re not going to be stuck doing rock ’n’ roll. I don’t want to get pigeonholed by that.”

CREDITS

Young@Heart

Starring Young@Heart Chorus

Directed by Stephen Walker

Rated PG-13

Running time 1 hour 48 minutes

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