Songs in the Key of Life

"Young@Heart" was a movie that I approached with dread. For starters, there was that title—so uncool. And a documentary about a chorus of senior citizens singing covers of the Clash, James Brown and Prince sounded like a recipe for cloying, life-affirming clichés.

How wrong I was. "Young @Heart" is a gem I can happily recommend to anyone. It follows 24 men and women in Northampton, Mass., for seven weeks as they prepare for a nearby concert (they call themselves Young@Heart). Their dedicated musical director, Bob Cilman, is a hard and gifted taskmaster—and at least 45 years younger than the oldest member, Eileen Hall, 92, who sings lead on "Should I Stay or Should I Go." The rehearsal sessions can be hilarious, as the group repeatedly stumbles through Allen Toussaint's "Yes We Can Can," but the specter of death is never far away: not all of them will make it to the final concert.

There are scenes in this exhilarating movie that startled me with their power. The group performs at a low-security prison, and the reactions of the young, tough cons—caught by surprise by the deep feelings the concert evokes—are unforgettable. At the climactic concert, Fred Knittle, a heavyset man with a playful wit, sings a spare, heart-piercing rendition of Coldplay's "Fix You." His singing, informed by the recent death of one of the group's cherished members, contains the wisdom and emotional directness you hear in Johnny Cash's late acoustic recordings. "Young@Heart," which opens April 9, sends you out of the theater transformed. If I didn't hate the phrase, I'd even call it life-affirming.