Hope I Get Old Before I Die

from mockumentary to best rockumentary ever: young@heart.

For the comic perspective, which sees us all as ineluctably enmeshed in history, ultimately subsumes the revolutionary utopian perspective simply by locating it in the ebb and flow of history’s tides. After all, tomorrow never knows. …It remembers. – Nick Bromell

The documentary Young@Heart seems to be about old age, but as the film unfolds, it turns out that it is really about rock ‘n’ roll.

At first, you think the film is a gag. Is it mocking these retirees who dare to sing rock songs and other pop hits? It sure seems like it when director Walker George intersperses silly MTV-style videos of the chorus members in between his cinéma vérité.

But slowly, you start to realize that a deeper, more substantive comedy is at work in this film as it moves between the brink of death and the absurdity of life.

The film begins to display precisely the comedic perspective that Nick Bromell argues rock music acquired in the 1950s and 60s. Bromell contends that rock became the crucial cultural medium in which baby boomers developed a particular structure of feeling: an adolescent “double consciousness” that drew upon African-American expressive traditions to transform alienation into a deeper understanding of history and struggle. Rock, for Bromell, was not only about the tragically-messianic utopianism of 60s anti-authoritarianism, but also about a more profound “comic vision of reconciliation.”

Recovering his memories of coming of age to the sounds of Elvis, the Beatles, Dylan, and the whole rock tradition, Bromell writes about how the music awakened a consciousness of time, mortality, fluidity, and (with a nod to William James) all the implications of lifting the veil on the radically destabilizing pluralism of human experience.

From a later moment in the life cycle, trying to remember the 60s and why they were important in ways that are so easy to forget, Bromell writes that, “It is as if these songs’ own consciousness of the brevity of their vision and the futility of adolescence created a genie who could fly forward through time and greet me when I arrived here.” The music in Young@Heart shows how the awareness of “brevity” and “futility” that rock revealed to Bromell can even reappear later in life than middle age. In this case, it reappears for retirees who are older than the baby boomers themselves.

Reinvigorating what Lawrence Grossberg has called the rock formation when they sing everything from the Rolling Stones to James Brown to the Ramones to Cold Play to Sonic Youth, the members of this retiree chorus reverse the famous dictum from the Who: to rock is to in fact hoping to get old before you die. But you can only do this by embracing an adolescent defiance that, as Bromell contends, is busy being born precisely from the realization that it will fade, like the last notes of a song, into the flow of history itself.

4 thoughts on “Hope I Get Old Before I Die

  1. Bah. In its original incarnation, rock and roll was about driving your car to pick up your girl, maybe get some, but always about celebration. Fun. Songs like “Tootie Fruity”, “Maybelline”, “Hound Dog” – what I think of as the Holy Trinity of founding rock and roll songs – are about those things. What’s most interesting about all three songs is they are adaptations of other songs, transformed by the performers to suit a need.

    Rock and roll and its descendants, at heart, are about the discovery of life and its possibilities. Having a bunch of old people sing them like this turns them into “the soundtrack of your life”, rather than the edgy, new, surprising music of youth.

    At 44, I can understand the appeal of a Lady Gaga to a younger generation of music listeners, even as I know the music isn’t for me. Had these oldsters started to sing “Disco Stick”, it would be farce. Having them sing The Rolling Stones turns the menace of the original in to Adult Contemporary fluff. Attempting some kind of intellectual triple axle to see anything more than nostalgia and low comedy in this is really quite ridiculous.

    While I do not wish to die before I get old, I also side with Grace Slick, who retired from performance because she refused to be relegated to the nostalgia circuit. Good for her.

  2. I had the same response at first. But I’ve got to admit that as I kept watching the film, I kept feeling something else gnawing at me emotionally beside the sense of embarrassment and maybe even anger that you are suggesting about Young@Heart. The “intellectual triple axle” (nice turn of phrase by the way) is an attempt to figure out that other feeling was.

    I mean, I think the film is really moving by the end of it, but in a way that one keeps wanting to push away or keep at bay. What is that resistance about? And what is the feeling being resisted about? Maybe all we can do are some intellectual flips and leaps to try to get at those feelings that welled up despite the best attempts to stifle them.

    There kept seeming to be something besides nostalgia and sentimentalism (or a deadpan critique of it) at work in this film. Some mode of feeling and being that was really important, that actually was menacing, but to which we might respond with extreme vulnerability and tenderness. After all, is there anything really more menacing than death, suffering, getting old, watching your peers die? Perhaps the choice to address that menace with a strange brew of tenderness and menace in Young@Heart is what distinguishes the 60s rock approach from Lady Gaga’s contemporary style. Not the same expressive content at work. (I’m not saying 60s rock is better than Lady Gaga, god no! Just that it’s after the expression of a different feeling.)

    My intellectual skating on thin ice about Young@Heart is because something was happening but I didn’t know what it was. And it seems important to try to grasp this something, as Bromell and Grossberg try to do. It feels important to try to put it into words, even if doing that makes me a lame Mr. Jones instead of simply going to ask Alice what the dormouse said.

  3. As I indicated, I’m 44. While I still dig rock, attend concerts, and am always excited to hear something new, I recognize that I’m at the age and stage where the music ceases to be about me. What is contemporary and hot now is so because it speaks to today’s needs.

    I guess I am wary of the continued promotion of the idea that there is something wrong with aging, with surrendering to youth the things of youth, with refusing to grow old with dignity and grace. Part of that process is setting aside the conceit that the appeal of things of youth can somehow, through some aesthetic alchemy, make us more relevant. I watched the trailer and felt sad for the old people in this film – this is a presentation of rock music as something even worse than nostalgia. It is returning it to its roots as novelty numbers (as, for example, many of the Leiber and Stoller songs, like Charlie Brown and even the original Hound Dog were), robbing them of their revolutionary power. In the beginning, youth turned the table on age by seeing in these novelty numbers something subversive of the current social and cultural order. Old folks singing them as a talisman to ward off the final darkness means they no longer serve any other function than perpetuating the narcissism that infects our whole society.

  4. Geoffrey – Like I said, my initial response to the film was very similar to yours. But by the end of the film, something else was happening. It’s not that I abandoned my hesitancy about the whole endeavor of Young@ Heart, or the serious questions raised by the style in which the documentary portrays the group, but that I felt something else, too. Something in addition. Above and beyond. The old folks in Young@Heart weren’t just trying to “ward off the final darkness.” This wasn’t a film about getting old and dying actually. They seemed, instead, to be accessing precisely what you yourself describe as rock and roll’s heart: to use your words, “the discovery of life and its possibilities.” They discover, by film’s end, another, er, wrinkle, to the rock and roll story. Something about the mutant appropriations of songs that rock as a hybrid form has always been about. And what happens when the awkward transformation of material from its original context occurs. If and when you see the film, let me know if you keep to the same position you have now (maybe the trailer does the film a disservice). It’s fine if it doesn’t adjust your sense of things, of course, but I’d be curious if it does. – CR

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