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We don’t die. That’s what we like to tell ourselves, anyway. We don’t get old, we don’t get sick, we don’t forget, and we certainly never die. In the mirror, on the scale, at the doctor’s office, standing half-naked and vulnerable in a bathing suit at the beach—-we’re constantly confronted by entire industries dedicated to helping us obsessively convince ourselves (and everyone else) that it’s possible to be young forever. Our culture equates youth with health, vigor, and our fullest, most formative memories. So what happens when that illusion is destroyed in one of the scariest ways imaginable—-when our formative memories start to slip away, locked inside the seemingly untouchable recesses of our worn, weathered minds?
The new documentary Alive Inside (which won the 2014 Audience Award at Sundance) attempts to answer some of those difficult questions. It sneaks a few new questions into the mix, too, but it does it so elegantly, you might not even notice you’re learning. The film, directed by Michael Rossato-Bennett, explores the profound effect that music has on elderly patients with dementia and Alzheimer’s.
Rossato-Bennett follows New York social worker Dan Cohen, founder of the nonprofit Music & Memory, for three years as Cohen launches an experimental project that brings iPods into 56 of the U.S.’s 16,000 nursing homes. We meet a host of frail, older subjects both before and after their joyful, often tearful reintroduction to the music of their childhoods. Not surprisingly, each senior Rossato-Bennett interviews endures a powerful transformation; one of them gleefully proclaims, “I feel like I’m one with the world.”
There’s Henry, a nursing home resident who’s depressed, silent, and motionless—-that is, until Cohen pops a pair of headphones on him and Henry hears the sounds of Cab Calloway crooning into his ears. Within moments, the near-lifeless old man is animatedly, enthusiastically singing (and remembering!) every lyric to “I’ll Be Home for Christmas.”
Then there’s Denise, a bipolar schizophrenic who is angry and unpredictable, prone to sudden emotional extremes, suddenly veering from laughing to ranting to crying. When she hears the sounds of Schubert lilting from her headphones, she’s instantly transported, her renewed sense of hope palpable through the camera.
The director also interviews musician Bobby McFerrin and experts like neurologist Oliver Sacks, who describes how music affects the last part of the brain affected by Alzheimer’s disease. We also meet activist doctor Bill Thomas, who decries the current state of America’s elder-care system, which relies heavily on meds and sedatives instead of cheaper and arguably more effective alternatice therapies like, well, iPods.
Rossato-Bennett’s voiceover can border on hokey, and sometimes I wished he’d pipe down for a minute to let me better enjoy the profound encounters portrayed on screen. Oh, and a warning for those with a case of the feels: This film is a (mainly happy) sob-fest all the way through. There will be sniffles; there will be sighing; there will be mascara-smeared cheeks. But seeing so many of this country’s oft-forgotten seniors revitalized, re-experiencing the positive memories that have long eluded them, makes the journey utterly worth it.
Alive Inside is playing at E Street Cinema.