For the first 45 minutes of this film I was wondering what the point of it was. I could easily appreciate the gimmick of seeing an aging choir from a rural American backwater touring the world with renditions of Jimi Hendrix, Radiohead, Sonic Youth, and the Clash (to name but a few); but I couldn’t understand why this justified a feature-length documentary.
The film seems, at first, more like an extended ‘making of’ for the forthcoming tour; and the interviews with individual choir members only serve to highlight the absurdity and gimmickry of the situation (a 92- year old woman with a Kenneth Williams sense of “oh I say!” humour, and a 79-year old man who drives a sports car and refers to his girlfriend as his “squeeze”).
But then one event catapults the film into the realm of emotional depth and social gravity that justifies the acclaim it has received. Bob is one of the older members of the choir, and certainly one of the less fortunate in terms of health. He has been absent from the choir, fighting his illness, but has recently returned.
His first rehearsal is a success, as he sings a duet of Coldplay’s ‘Fix You’ with Fred (who requires an oxygen tank while he sings); but a few days later he seems terribly frail and nervous. He needs three people to help him over to the microphone, where he struggles to force out the words. He seems ashamed and upset at his failure, but we finally find out that he spent the previous day in hospital due to a complication with his lungs! His family tried to force him to stay home, but he demanded to be present at the rehearsal.
Over the next few weeks Bob battled with mortal illness, spending every spare moment learning his lines for the big show. But eventually the battle proved too much, and he gave out. Up until his dying moments Bob was learning his lines and looking forward to performing with his friends and impressing Bob, the choirmaster.
I think that this one event helped the filmmaker, Stephen Walker, to discover what he had wanted to say when he decided to make this documentary. The special thing about these people is not that they don’t mind punk music, but that they help to alleviate our innate fear of old age, and the gradual dilapidation of our earthly bodies, by showing us that there is nothing to be scared of.
They discuss whether or not they have ever been read their last rights as though they were talking about chicken pox… like it’s just something that happens to everyone! When one old woman explains that she was once on death’s door, Bob asks if she saw the ‘white light’ and she replies, “no, I didn’t want to look!”
How many times do we tell ourselves that our lives are just about to begin? Just as soon as this week is through? As soon as I have finished this ‘to do’ list? When January comes around? Once this divorce is finally settled? Our live are plagued by a constant belief that we are about to be reborn, and that our eternal present is just an annoying moment that has to be overcome before the ‘real’ fun starts.
Well at some point these ageing hipsters finally overcame that stigma. They realised that tomorrow will never come, and if they want to enjoy something they have to grab it with both hands and battle to the bitter end – through humiliating hospital gowns and nagging relatives and fading memories – to keep it.
I for one can bear witness to how extraordinary and humbling it is to see the determined and passionate battle man undertakes to defeat the ills that his own body forces upon him.
Another choir member, Joe, has been battling cancer for years, and has undergone an astonishing number of chemotherapy procedures. He ignored the advice of doctors and relatives to join the choir on their European tour, knowing full well that it could be a fatal decision.
Joe dies soon after Bob, finally succumbing the cancer that he had forbade from affecting his life so resolutely. He might have survived for an extra year or so, lying in a hospice somewhere eating tapioca and staring at a chessboard, but he chose to spend his final years pursuing an odd dream that made him happy.
He was surrounded by the people that he cared about, and that cared about him; and while I obviously never saw his final expression, there is not a moment in the weeks leading up to his death when he wasn’t smiling and giggling with his chums. Surely we can all agree that, while cancer eventually took him, Joe thoroughly defeated it while he was alive.
Perhaps this is why the only song the choir never enjoy singing is Sonic Youth’s Schizophrenia. The lyrics, “my future is static, it’s already had it” could never ring true to this purple-haired gaggle of cackling, frenetic OAPs.
The film ends with Fred singing ‘Fix You’ alone, dedicating it to his old friend Bob. It is his last performance with the choir; he has agreed to retire. It was at this point that ‘old people singing pop songs’ stopped being a gimmick, and I realized what was so worthwhile about this choir.
Beyond how charming and silly and heart-warming they all look… Fred brought to the song a pensive sadness and an understated comprehension that Chris Martin, and anybody under the age of 75, could never have imagined possible.
We can’t fight old age, we can’t fight death, and as individuals we are fairly helpless in the face of disease. But we can fight our own lethargy and solemnity. We can refuse to waste a moment of our lives… or at least not waste it wondering what we could be doing with it… or waste it thinking about what we could be doing with it but then not waste even more time looking back on the time we have already wasted and feeling sorry for ourselves!
Finally, the message that these adorable old creatures profess to is thus: accepting the passing of time is the only way to stay… forever young.