Back in 1969, Oliver Sacks discovered that he could revive catatonic patients by administering a drug called L-Dopa, though the treatment turned out to be temporary and unsustainable. (Awakenings, the 1990 film based on this experiment, starred Robin Williams and Robert De Niro.) Sacks appears as a talking head in the new documentary Alive Inside, which argues that a much more benign version of the same idea—one that doesn’t involve drugs at all—can help people suffering from various forms of dementia, including Alzheimer disease. All that’s necessary, according to Dan Cohen, the director and founder of Music & Memory, is to find out what songs they loved growing up, load that music into an iPod Mini, and place a pair of headphones over their ears. This doesn’t solve most problems related to dementia, but it does, in many cases, inspire strong emotions in patients who’d been unresponsive for years.
The film’s most affecting example is its first one: an elderly man named Henry, who seems permanently lost in the fog until he hears some Cab Calloway, at which point he begins singing along, dancing in his chair, and talking excitedly. Even if director Michael Rossato-Bennett has chosen to highlight the contrast via selective editing, initially showing Henry at his most withdrawn, the dramatic change is undeniable and deeply moving—there’s no doubt that music directly reaches him in a way that no other stimulus can. Other patients demonstrate similar transformations, and the film makes a strong case that millions of people suffering from dementia could have their lives significantly improved for a nominal cost—basically $50 a head for the smallest iPod and some cheap headphones. Nonetheless, Cohen struggles against the bureaucracy of nursing homes, making little headway until his video of Henry goes viral after being posted on Reddit. Only then do donations and volunteers start pouring in, inspiring nursing homes to loosen up.
Reddit and YouTube are the ideal way to experience the Music & Memory project, frankly. Alive Inside runs a brisk 78 minutes, but that’s still far more time than it requires to make its point; once you’ve seen a couple of old people suddenly come to life upon hearing “I Get Around” or “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” there’s not much to be gained by being presented with half a dozen more instances. In order to reach feature length, the film has to devote considerable time to complaining about nursing homes in general (without insulting the people who work in them—a delicate balance), which is a topic far too broad to be properly tackled here. “Why can’t so-and-so’s family just buy her an iPod?” is an obvious question that never gets answered, for example; presumably, many patients have been essentially abandoned, but at no point do we see Cohen attempt to contact a relative and get rebuffed. Alive Inside’s repetitive nature and lack of depth make it come across more like a fundraising effort than a movie, and it really could have used the wry sense of humor found in comments on the Reddit post about Henry. “Helping someone like this is amazing,” one person says. “I am worried that when I’m old,” another replies, “the kids will put on some Justin Bieber for me and wonder why my face isn’t lighting up.”