In the past decade, dementia has become a baby-boomers’ aging-related terror projected for all to see: seniors like the living-dead, lost in a fog, unable to recognize their loved ones.
Alive Inside—released in 2014 and screening at Metro Cinema Saturday with the director joining via video—tries to dispel that nightmare, championing a project to reawaken dementia sufferers and other care-facility residents through music. Its audio-visual moments of quasi-resurrection are truly remarkable; the documentary is let down, though, by its narration and increasingly promotional feel-goodness.
Like many movies exploring care facilities for the aged, Michael Rossato-Bennett’s chronicle is an imprisonment-to-liberation tale. But it also shifts gears from personal essay to socio-historical critique and on to a project-promoting documentary. Enlisted by Dan Cohen to follow him for a day, Rossato-Bennett ended up trailing him through care facilities for three years. Cohen’s project—popping headphones, plugged into personalized music systems, onto the facilities’ residents—has immediate, astounding effects. Take Alzheimer’s-stricken Henry, quiet and withdrawn for years—now, headphones on, he looks up, his eyes bulging to life, and starts singing along to the gospel he’s loved since he was a boy. And it’s more than music therapy, but music-assisted memory rehabilitation as listeners start recalling fond memories sparked afire by the music.
Intriguing byways into understanding music’s hold over us are pursued, along with the history of America’s senior home system—warehousing, over-medicating, and overly clinical. But, especially as the movie jumps on board Cohen’s campaign to equip facilities with personalized music programs, it’s the often-precious narration which clangs. A few shots of hallways and sufferers feel like bad PSA horror scenes. There’s a preaching-to-the-converted sense when we see clips of people watching the segment with Henry, which went viral and boosted Cohen and Rossato-Bennett’s cause. Still, questions linger: Can visual aids (like the doc’s pictures and clips of sufferers’ childhood) help recuperate memories? Given how much Cohen says “iPods,” was Apple—one of the most profitable companies on the planet—approached to fund his program? And yet what remains undoubtable is how deeply moving it is to watch one shut-in after another be let loose, in a moment, by sound.