In School of Rock Jack Black taught a classroom of 10-year-olds that rock and roll music is always about one thing: Sticking it to The Man. A new documentary about a chorus of performers in their 80’s and 90’s shows that no one has more reason to stick it to The Man than people who are most defiantly not going gently into that good night.
This is not your grandfather’s choir. Instead of singing songs from their youth like “Boogie Woogie Bugle Boy” or “Sentimental Journey” these old folks tap their orthopedic shoes, tug along an oxygen tank, and slam into the music of their great-grandchildren’s generation. They’ve gone straight from 78’s to iPods, literally without skipping a beat.
It sounds cute. Old people are settled, conservative. They are The Man, aren’t they? There is something deliciously incongruous about very old people singing the songs of very young people.
But it is not cute. Their set list is not soft or easy. No Billy Joel, Neil Diamond, or Beach Boys, no gentle harmonies or catchy melodies. This is raw and angry. They sing hard rock (Jimi Hendrix’s “Purple Haze”), punk rock (The Ramones’ “I Want to Be Sedated”), and blues (“I Feel Good” by James Brown). This is real rock and roll, written to be shocking, provocative, subversive. It is stirring, and deeply moving, finally transcendent. Music videos for songs like Sonic Youthâ€™s â€œSchizophreniaâ€ and the Talking Headsâ€™ â€œRoad to Nowhereâ€ have a surreal, dream-like quality, good-humored but poignant as they add moments of fantasy and release. The Man they are sticking it to is loss of all kinds.
The movie takes us from the first rehearsals to a sold-out performance in the chorusâ€™ home town of Northampton, Massachusetts. Continually frazzled but continually optimistic choir director Bob Cilman makes no concessions, artistically or generationally. This is not occupational therapy; it is art and it is show business. He insists on a top-quality professional production.
Cilman presents the chorus with Allen Toussaintâ€™s tongue-twistingly syncopated â€œYes We Can Can,â€ which has the word â€œcanâ€ 71 times. Form equals content and the medium becomes the message as they struggle to master the intricacies of the song.
Director Stephen Walkerâ€™s interviews occasionally seem intrusive, even condescending, but perhaps he, like Cilman, gets a little flustered at the inability to maintain any sense of control over the feisty singers. Early in the film, 92-year-old soloist Eileen Hall flirts with Walker â€“ probably just to keep him off-base, at which she is entirely successful. Hallâ€™s elegant British diction makes the opening lines of the Clash song, â€œShould I Stay or Should I Goâ€ sound as though she is asking whether we want cream or sugar. But then the song turns into a goose-bump-inducing negotiation with life and death.
Two members who have been very ill, Fred Knittle and Bob Salvini, return for a duet, the Coldplay song, â€œFix You.â€ But Salvini dies before the show. The chorus gets the news as they sit on a bus, about to leave for a performance at a local prison. No one knows better than they do that the show can and must go on.
They stand in the prison yard singing Bob Dylanâ€™s â€œForever Young,â€ voices quavering perhaps just slightly more than usual as they remember their friend. The prisoners are transfixed. Then, at the concert that concludes the film, â€œFix Youâ€ is performed as a solo by Knittle, his oxygen tank beside him. He sings â€œwhen you lose something you canâ€™t replaceâ€¦I will try to fix youâ€¦lights will guide you homeâ€ and it is impossible not to feel that these performers understand those words better than the young men who wrote them. And when they nail â€œYes We Can Canâ€ it becomes an anthem of defiance, survival, and, yes, sticking it to The Man.