Stephen Walker, director of the documentary "Young @ Heart", which opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 9 and across the U.S. and Canada on April 18 and is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.  (Photo: Omar P.L. Moore/

Stephen Walker, Directing The Young And Energetic At Heart

By Omar P.L. Moore/The Popcorn Reel

March 25, 2008


On a sunny mid-morning Friday at the Ritz Carlton Hotel, Stephen Walker is walking into a cavernous room where an interviewer waits.  He politely apologizes for being slightly late, in an accent that is unmistakably English.  Mr. Walker hails from London and has been making films for more than two decades.  His latest is a documentary entitled "Young @ Heart", a Fox Searchlight film which will be released in the U.S. and Canada on April 18.  The film is about the Northampton, Massachusetts-based Young@Heart chorus, a collection of 25 septuagenarians, octogenarians and nonagenarians whose energy and will to live life to the fullest in the golden twilight of their years is boundless.  The chorus, headed by conductor Bob Cilman, sing cover versions of well-known songs from such music artists as the Talking Heads, The Ramones, The Bee Gees, Bob Dylan, David Bowie and the Godfather of Soul James Brown, traveling around the world to packed arenas of people of all ages, but most of whom are considerably younger than they themselves are.

If music is often thought of as the food of love, then in the case of Mr. Walker's film (which was produced by Sally George, the director's wife), music became the food for financing it.  "I mean, I think that's what everybody got excited about.  The concept is a bit bizarre and quiet unique," said Mr. Walker, who added that among numerous challenges he had to grapple with exploding the myths and stereotypes about senior citizens.  Mr. Walker, who is in his forties and the father of his daughter Kitty, shared an anecdote about the youthful exuberance of numerous chorus members, all old enough to be a great grandparent to the filmmaker. 

"I saw them perform in Berlin to a packed house . . . they had been doing the show all day long.  They did another show in the evening.  It was ten-thirty at night.  They're off to the bar, they're drinking at the bar.  It's now two in the morning.  They've got a flight back to New York from Berlin in Germany the next morning and I think they left the bar at about three -- not drinking heavily, but just having fun," said the director, who said the choir members were living their lives in a way and at a pace that he himself would have trouble keeping up with at his present age.  He pointed out one specific choir member, a 93-years-young gentleman who was living it up as well.  This all-day affair of vim and vigor took place a several months after "Young @ Heart" finished filming.

Referring back to his new film, which Mr. Walker would later say was the toughest shoot of all the films he's ever directed, he said in a matter-of-fact way: "But of course you have to remember that they are old," uttering that three-letter word which in the U.S. is often associated with another three-letter word: end.  "And when you film with them, sometimes you forget -- certainly when we did the music videos in the film.  There's one awful moment where we suddenly realized -- when, I think it was when Fred Nettle was performing "Staying Alive" wearing the John Travolta ("Saturday Night Fever") suit -- suddenly realized that he hadn't had his oxygen tank for the last two hours.  And he just went on, he was a pro."  The crew and director were more than impressed but equally concerned.  "We thought, 'my god, you know, this guy's going to die on us if we're not careful,'" said Mr. Walker, who maintained a vigorous sense of humor throughout the conversation in an echo chamber of a room in this first-floor suite. 

"'Go home Fred, get your oxygen, fill up your oxygen tank, don't ever let anything stop you!'", Mr. Walker recalled he and several crew members saying to Mr. Nettle.  "You don't have to do that normally with actors," the director added, somewhat tongue-in-cheek.  In laying out a roadmap for the film about such a large cast of characters, the obvious approach meant an inevitable pairing down of the participants who would be on camera.  "We met all 25 members of the chorus.  We got to know them, sat down . . . I had so much cake," he said, adding that he was still trying to shed a few pounds, even as his somewhat slight but sturdy build appeared to belie his claim.  Mr. Walker said he and others on the film crew spent time " . . . basically trying to find out who they were and to get and build a relationship that was really important . . . and in the end we looked at the 25 and asked, 'who of these people should we make foreground, who's our principal cast here?'", the filmmaker said.

One of the 25 who is featured prominently is Dora B. (Parker) Morrow, an 85-year-old who has been with the Young@Heart chorus for about six years.  The director hailed Ms. Morrow, calling her "amazing".  Her son-in-law, Bill E. Arnold, a.k.a. "Mr. Clean", a drummer with the chorus who also appears in the film, was also the drummer for the R&B/soul group Junior Walker and The All-Stars.  "She has this incredible musical background . . . she knew James Brown, the king, you know?  So when she sings "I Feel Good", she kept saying, 'you know, I don't know what James will think about this!'"  Mr. Walker laughs heartily at this point.  The director is clear about what he thinks Mr. Brown would have thought about Ms. Morrow's rendition.  "He would have loved it," he said.  When the prospect of imagining James Brown being alive today and able to sing with the Young@Heart chorus is entertained to Mr. Walker, he responds by saying, "that would have been like a dream come true for me," mentioning that he was a great admirer of the Godfather of Soul.

Stephen Walker narrates "Young @ Heart" in addition to his directing duties on the new documentary.  He has directed a mix of feature films and documentaries for the British television networks Channel Four and the BBC.  Mr. Walker's resume includes such documentaries as "Hiroshima -- A Day That Shook The World" about the last day before the U.S. dropping of the atomic bomb on the Japanese city of Hiroshima, and "Hardcore", which chronicled the Los Angeles pornography industry.  Mr. Walker has written two books, including King of Cannes, a rip-roaring chronicle of the director's fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival several years ago.

Mr. Walker had no notion of making "Young @ Heart" a harder-edged film, although he always intended to explore the taboos regarding old age, while utilizing the tunes that the chorus sings, tunes that will be familiar to many pop, rock, soul and R&B fans of music from the 1960's, '70's, '80's and today.  In his initial proposals for the film, the director revealed that ". . . it was very explicit, right there at the beginning, that we were going to look right into the eye of what it's like to be on
the edge of the end of your life."  Mr. Walker said he had interviewed a lot of the choir members about near-death experiences and sickness, but the footage from these interviews was left on the cutting room floor.

Mr. Walker said later that "I wanted this film to be hugely entertaining and funny, but I also wanted it to be -- you used the word hard-edge -- I didn't want to make -- you know, Fox Searchlight very understandably think of this as a crowd-pleaser, and in many ways it is a crowd-pleaser.  I like that.  I think it's a good marketing concept.  And I think it will draw people into the movie theaters because it's a lot of fun to watch.  I can see that from the reaction I'm getting in the screenings.  But I'd like to think it's a lot more than that.  There are moments which go right to quite a dark place, and then come back again from that dark place.  You've got to bring an audience back.  You can't stay there forever.  Because if you do, the film will be an unwatchable film.  And I wanted to make a very watchable film."

"Young @ Heart" opens in New York and Los Angeles on April 9 and elsewhere in the U.S. and Canada on April 18.  The film is released by Fox Searchlight Pictures.

Bob Cilman, Northampton Chorus Director of the Young@Heart chorus, talks to The Popcorn Reel about his experiences on the film

Dora Morrow and Jack Schnepp, Young@Heart Chorus members, sit down with The Popcorn Reel and celebrate life, music and the joy of youth

Copyright The Popcorn Reel.  2008.  All Rights Reserved.


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