Michael Rossato-Bennett agreed to spend one day filming Dan Cohen’s remarkable music therapy work with people struggling with dementia. He ended up spending three years there and the result is “Alive Inside,” an extraordinary documentary about the power of music to reach the human spirit, even when words and memories are gone. And it is also about the devotion of those who care for these people, those who work so hard to reach what seems unreachable. He spoke to me about making the film and about the work that is being done to expand these programs.
What is it that makes this film so powerful?
It’s so profoundly touching. People that are gone in one part of their being and yet absolutely profound in another. And that’s why I think this is a film that is meant to be seen with other people. I think by accident I’ve shown something that no one has ever seen before. These are people who don’t have any of their personalities, any of their memory, of their mind, they’ve basically lost the ability to lie. So you just see these pure human souls. And these pure souls are living in a world where they’re basically starving for the stuff that makes people alive, connection and music.
And then we brought the one-two punch, we brought music and we brought us. And we said, “Show us who you are. Listen to this music from when you were young and we are going to be here and watch you.” And these people just were like, “Oh my God! This is the music of my soul and you are here with me!” And they woke up. And to experience another person waking is an odd and indescribable experience. Like when you see your child take its first step or see your baby crying, there’s nothing you can do it just cuts into the core of your heart. We are showing people who are lost to themselves and lost to the world and then giving them this miraculous elixir of life that’s called music. And to see them discover the core of what they are and have that bloom in front of our eyes is a gift because that’s who we are, you and I, we’re not like our jobs, that’s not the people we are. That’s what we do to make a living or whatever but the people we are, are the people who deeply love. You know, in the moment of our deepest love, that’s who we are and those are the things that when you go into yourself and say, who am I? What am I? Those are the things that are real and you just sit there and resonate. And I think music is the perfect vehicle to awaken that for all of us. Anyway this is just a huge opportunity to make a difference for a sleeping population and heal ourselves in the process. And I think we’re in desperate need of healing as a people and that’s perhaps why this movie is getting such a good reaction.
As a filmmaker, you had this great gift of the look of coming alive on people’s faces when they heard the music. You also had archival footage. Was that real film of these people or was it just intended to evoke the feeling of their pasts and their memories?
It’s a mixture of both. Some is their home movies and some of it was footage that we found that describes moments that we were told happened in their lives. So it’s either their actual footage from their life or it’s illustration of things we were told about them.
This film made me conscious of my own memory. I remember one day just walking around in total awe looking at all the people around me, all these elders in these nursing homes and I realize that inside each one of them, that they play for themselves, that is a kind of movie of them with their wives and their kids or their dogs or their friends. It kind of overwhelmed me this idea that we all have a movie playing in our heads.
You had some people in the movie were dealing with diseases other than dementia. Tell me a little bit about what the music therapy can do for other kinds of illnesses.
Music therapists have known about the power of music for years. This environment is to some degree a desert of the soul. Steve was a man with multiple sclerosis. All he can do is speak listen. I was literally aghast that no one thought to bring him his music in eight years since he was first hospitalized. If that’s the case, what are we thinking? We certainly need to rethink what we’re doing especially when it had such a profound effect on him.
Music is one of the most profound human creations that we’ve got and its wisdom is phenomenal. I personally believe that music is a precursor to religion. Together we existed in community in rhythm and melody, it thought is that we are together and that we are one and that we vibrate and that the world vibrates. It’s a preverbal expression of everything good we’ve ever expressed.
It’s actually very sad about our state of music right now; you know all music today is quantitized. It means computers put it on micro beats so it doesn’t have human beats. It’s like robot music. And a majority of the artists are now auto-tuning their voices. It is pretty, but it is less human. It’s like Photoshopping for the ears.
Has working on this film affected your thoughts about your own music?
I never liked the music of the 40’s or 50’s but now I just listen to it through their ears. It literally brings tears to my eyes. I’m building an app to be a tool for young people. So that a young person could interface with an elder and help them find their music but at the same time get to hear. So these young people will get to hear this phenomenally profound music, like the music of the Andrews Sisters or Louis Armstrong or Nessun Dorma by Pavarotti. I think that’s one of the pinnacles of human music.
What do you want this movie to accomplish?
What I really want this film to do is to inspire people to create connection. I see this world as a place going more and more individualistic, creating divisions and isolation in many people’s life. We are more connected than ever now with all these phones and everything but we’re not really connected and we’re tweeting each other and Facebooking each other but are we really connecting? How profound are we emotionally? How profound are we musically? How profound are we as dancers? These things are being discarded. I get it that we are moving forward and we are discovering new things you we can’t get there from here and we will become different beings. We have always evolved but we spent half a million years creating music and I think it has lessons for us.