Don Argott's 2005 crowd-pleaser Rock School illustrated how tough, unsentimental documentary filmmaking can undercut the sentimentality of even the most oppressively adorable subject. School explored the career of Rock School proprietor Paul Green, a mercurial, foul-mouthed teacher whose life goal entails bringing the rock to adorable tots and sulky teens. Young@Heart explores a similarly crowd-pleasing story from somewhere at the opposite end of the age spectrum—it tells the story of Bob Cilman, an iconoclastic teacher brave or foolish enough to teach a chorus of senior citizens songs from artists like The Clash. But any hope that Walker will steer clear of sap vanishes when he guilelessly gushes early on that documenting the choir was like picking up dozens of new grandparents. Walker undoubtedly means well, and his affection for his subjects is palpable. But the "Aren't these geezers adorable?" approach ends up diminishing his subjects rather than honoring them.
Walker's film follows the "Young At Heart" chorus as it tries to learn tricky new songs by Sonic Youth, Allen Toussaint, and others for a climactic performance. The singing seniors turn out to be a gregarious lot delighted to have an appreciative audience for their corny jokes and rambling tales. The film's first half is human-interest-story peppy, but as one chorus member after another stares down his imminent mortality, the film grows darker and more heart-wrenching.
Cilman looks to be almost as intriguing a subject as Green, but Walker unwisely maintains a respectful distance from him and avoids asking tough questions, like whether teaching confused seniors a Sonic Youth song is broadening their horizons, or imposing his own arty taste on folks who'd rather sing the Irving Berlin songbook. Walker similarly stumbles in including homemade Young At Heart "music videos" that come off as cheesy and condescending instead of cheeky and irreverent. Which is a shame, because there's a wealth of great material here, especially a shattering performance of Coldplay's "Fix You" by a soulful mountain of a man named Fred Knittle. In this transcendent, goosebump-inducing moment, the facile gimmick of senior citizens performing the music of their grandchildren's generation disappears, giving way to something truer and more profound: a great singer connecting on a primal level with the heart of a terrific song. It's a wonderful sequence that deserves to be in a deeper, better film.