Choruses in the Movies: Part One

Aged rock stars, protesting Estonians, South African orphans—all play starring roles in three films that sing of the power of choral communities.

We know choruses have great stories to tell. But it's not often you get to see those stories told on the big screen. But three films about choruses did enjoy limited engagements at the theaters, mostly at off-the-beaten-path art film houses.

Staying Alive, Staying Alive

The documentary Young@Heart tells the heartwarming story of the chorus by the same name, whose some two dozen performers flaunt old age—and even death—by singing rip-roaring rock-and-roll standards.

Formed in 1982 at a center for the elderly in Northampton, Massachusetts, the Young@Heart Chorus has earned an enthusiastic following in the U.S. and has made 12 tours abroad. The movie focuses on the two-month preparation for a 2006 concert in Northampton.

The group's song selections are not standard chorus fare, and many of the members admit to an affinity for classical over rock music. But the irony of a feisty 80-year-old belting out "Staying Alive" or "I Wanna Be Sedated" is part of the fun. And the film does delve into the personal lives of several of the members for whom death is an ever-present possibility.

As Stephen Holden wrote in his review in The New York Times, "The movie offers an encouraging vision of old age in which the depression commonly associated with decrepitude is held at bay by music making, camaraderie and a sense of humor."

For more about the Young@Heart Chorus go to their website. You can listen to samples of songs from their CD, "Mostly Live," at the CD Baby website.

They Can't Steal Our Song

The documentary, The Singing Revolution, tells the moving story of how the Estonian people peacefully regained their freedom—and helped topple an empire along the way. Most people don't think about singing when they think about revolutions. But song was the weapon of choice when, between 1987 and 1991, Estonians sought to free themselves from decades of Soviet occupation.

Estonia is a country of choral festivals. Every year thousands of people converged at an outdoor amphitheatre for days of chorus performances and group singing. The Soviet occupiers, fearing the nationalistic fervor that these festivals created, tried to sanitize them. But the Estonians would have nothing of it.

One of the most amazing scenes in the movie shows hundreds of thousands of Estonians, with hands clasped, swaying and lustily singing national folk songs, with Soviet soldiers nervously looking on.

"Imagine the scene in Casablanca in which the French patrons sing 'La Marseillaise' in defiance of the Germans," Matt Zoller Seitz wrote of the scene in a review in The New York Times. "Then multiply its power by a factor of thousands, and you've only begun to imagine the force of 'The Singing Revolution.'"

The Singing Revolution speaks of the importance of music and art not just for the group of people that performs it, but for the entire culture of a country. As another reviewer, Bruce Bennett, wrote in The New York Sun, "...The story of 'The Singing Revolution' is a thought-provoking reminder that culture and citizenship are closer bedfellows than we might realize, and that having a song in one's heart is more than just a romantic notion."

For more about The Singing Revolution, go to the movie's website.

Exulting in Musicmaking

Filmed over three years, We Are Together (2006) tells the true story of 12-year-old Slindile, her siblings and her friends at the Agape Orphanage in South Africa, where most of the children have lost their parents to AIDS.

The children don't have much, but they do have a choir, and they live in a country that exults in its musicmaking.

The film follows the children and their teachers as they train to sing in a series of concerts in London. We Are Together deftly uses the inspiration of singing in a chorus as a way for these troubled young people to look with hope and defiance into the future.

So far, We Are Together has been making the rounds of film festivals and it has won 14 film awards for documentary. Meanwhile, you can go the We Are Together website to see and hear clips from the film; if you sign up for the mailing list, you get a free download of one of the songs from the film. To get the whole CD of the film music, follow this link.

All proceeds from the CD and the film go to children in South Africa.