Elderhood. Is that even a thing? You grow from the innocence of childhood through the experiences of adulthood and then...you just get old. Nobody likes to talk about that. Kids dream about growing up so they can do all the adult things they see adults do, and adults wish they can turn back the clock and be kids again. Have you ever heard anyone say, “Man, I cannot wait to get old. I’m going to have the sweetest walker ever.” From Grandpa Simpson to reactions after an 82-year-old Clint Eastwood talked to an empty chair, American culture has always greeted old age as comic relief from a distance. But as one of the most insightful interviewees says in “Alive Inside,” “American Culture is wrong.” Director Michael Rossato-Bennett and the movie's main subject, Dan Cohen, have given a voice to millions of people, hidden and forgotten in those corners of society most people tend to avoid. They gave them a voice by treating them like human beings and making the point crystal clear: elderhood is just as complicated and real as childhood and adulthood.
Dan Cohen had been volunteering at nursing homes for some time before he got the idea to introduce music as a form of therapy to the elderly. The results were immediate and positively astounding, so when he found out how much of a non-subject music was in nursing homes across the country, Dan was disappointed. Thousands of nursing homes, and not a single iPod between them. Disappointment bred inspiration in this case, and spreading knowledge on the healing powers of music for the elderly, especially those battling with dementia and Alzheimer’s, turned into Dan’s calling card. He convinced filmmaker Michael Rossato-Bennett to follow him around with a camera as he introduced music to a forgotten and ignored generation of people, whose vacant stares and constant need of care suggested completely hollow shells, and seeing life re-kindled within them left a deeply emotional impact. The documentarian ended up following Dan for three years, and interestingly enough, what started off as a study into how much more helpful music therapy is for people deeply entrenched in Alzheimer’s, turned into a portrayal of a frightening reality about the state of nursing homes in the United States, and the treatment of those in their care.
While the 73-minute running time may suggest a breezy watch for “Alive Inside,” the reality is that it’s anything but. The subjects chosen by Cohen and Rossato-Bennett are ones who are most inconspicuous at tearing out your heart, among them a man who became an internet sensation on reddit when the video of him listening to music went viral, a schizophrenic patient whose mood swings startle but don’t compare to her isolation and desire to leave something of herself behind, and a man affected by radiation therapy who used to love to sing but couldn’t remember until someone put headphones on his head. We’d be kidding if we didn’t admit how hard to watch some of these bleak scenes are, but it’s all done with a purpose to enlighten the viewer into how these people, still with so much soul and heart, are treated in their inhumane surroundings. Once the documentary starts to segue away from how music affects the various patients, into talking about the nature of nursing homes and how far under the rug the government sweeps them, “Alive Inside” turns a corner and starts answering questions you’ve probably been asking ten minutes into the picture.
Ultimately, it’s the loneliness of these people that breaks hearts. Coupled with how staff members treat them with the sensitivity of a grocer handling vegetables in the supermarket, the elderly are simply counting the days, many of them without the support of family members. The sad reality is that this kind of attitude to geriatrics is such a big part of American tradition and culture, playing the blame game is a dead end. For the thousands of patients who simply don’t have a choice of being cared for at home (the documentary does well to show the powerful distinction between those who have care at home and with family versus those in the nursing homes), people like Dan Cohen are a godsend. After their viral videos brought them media attention, Cohen’s non-profit organization Music and Memory managed to raise enough awareness and money to start delivering iPods and headphones to hundreds of nursing homes. A graph tells us how small of a drop in the ocean that percentage is, but this makes “Alive Inside” no less inspiring and that much more important. Premiering at Sundance earlier in the year, where it nabbed the Audience Award, and now playing in theaters across the country, “Alive Inside” contains a tiny revolution within its message, and will likely end up being one of the most important documentaries of the year. [B+]